Sunday Morning Baking, Rituals and the Power of Memories

breadBanana

This morning was going to be special. I had a couple of very ripe bananas pleading to be transmogrified into home baked banana bread. And, not having baked for some time now, I went to bed already savoring the early morning baking adventure.

There is a special pleasure in baking at this time of day that you can’t possibly access any other time. As you shuffle your way from the bedroom to the kitchen, the stillness of the still dark house is palpable, punctuated only by the steady hum of the refrigerator compressor. The flick of the light switch basically engages a complicity between you and the silence, the darkness outside, the cold air (if you are fortunate to have a central) and the aloneness. Birds are starting to wake up in anticipation of the morning outside, but the light of the kitchen demarcates your refuge from the unknown night space.

As you get your mug of ‘earl grey’ going, you take a first look at your recipe and begin to line up your utensils on the work table and the ingredients on the counter behind you, the mise en place. The tea is ready, you put Cat Steven on the turntable in the other room (low, you don’t want to break the spell, just accentuate it, and you don’t want to wake anyone else up). And you’re ready, too. And then it is only you and your endeavor.

Maybe it is as simple as it reminding me of my 2:00 am baking shifts at the bakery decades ago, maybe it is the power of rituals. But it is not memory, it is rather locating you in a special ‘place’. Maybe it is the intensity of the focus, for a while there is just you and your being.

I am one for rituals. It did take some time and Wanda’s coaching. Normally, Sunday mornings I will get out of bed while still dark, start my incense, fire up Pandora on a special station I save only for Sundays (Chopin or Satie are my favorites for this), go through my short yoga routine, get my big mug of strong tea and then settle down to check the news online. At the first sign of light you go outside to fetch the NYT before an enterprising passer-by beat you to it (it has happened, the price of living in an open neighborhood, and who can blame them?). You save that music and that incense just for that day. That’s how routines turn into rituals. Wanda taught me that.

Back when we were just starting out building a family decades ago, I was still in kind of an iconoclastic rebellious stage. If it smelled like ‘tradition’, I was boycotting it. Christmas included. A young punk.

But rituals (something as ridiculous and kitsch as putting a real tree festooned with all kinds of tacky glass trinkets in the middle of your living room), Wanda showed me, do not have any meaning by themselves. It is the repetition year after year and only on the specific occasion what actually imbue them with meaning (in our CompLit classes later we discovered that phenomenon has a name: a leitmotif) as it creates a continuum that connects us to a longer term perspective, a wider scope narrative, and a more ample definition of our selves. And that is what tradition should be. But, maybe more important, is the fact that for that moment you are focused on your endeavor, you are mindful and in the moment. For that, obviously, you have to pay attention.

This past weekend I had the pleasure of having some long conversations with one of my favorite nieces who I don’t see frequently enough and who visited us for a couple of days. First let me tell you that I have been blessed with a set of nieces smart, tough and sweet like nothing else. Every time I have a chance to share some time with any of them I have to stop to consider how lucky I am.

But this one in particular shares with me a curiosity for eastern philosophies and questioning the foibles of human nature. We were discussing how you navigate difficult periods in our lives. I was telling her how important it is to cultivate good memories because they are like a savings account for tough times. In darker times (of which I have had my share), I ‘make a withdrawal’ and appease my soul to get me through those dark nights of the soul: ‘It is not always like this, we have been happy and we will again‘. I go back to walk with Diego as a baby to the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, or the Duck Pond in Stony Brook, or the students’ gardens in Santa Barbara. Back a couple of decades ago, while my business was going through a very difficult moment, another local business owner going through a similar situation actually killed himself (a permanent solution to a temporary situation). I went to my safe spaces.

And then I thought, to be able to do that, you have to make your deposits. And for that you have to pay attention. Live that moment with all your senses. Be mindful. Because, later, remembering will be more than recalling memories, it aims to put you in that special ‘space’ you occupied then and there. A programmatic madeleine.

Then the bread was in the oven and I cleaned my utensils. May not sound strange by now, one of the things I specially enjoy about baking at home is cleaning up: I like to carefully brush with lots of soap the mixer blades, rub dry with a towel all the wooden parts of cutters and slicers, scrub and then scrape the butcher block table and put everything away.  Washing the large bowl is a special treat. The goal is to make the kitchen look like absolutely nothing has just happened there.

Cat Stevens is long past done. I go over to my office and light a cone of sandalwood incense and start Pandora.  Today I decide to go with Glenn Campbell first. I remember how as a teenager I would lie on my bed in the middle of a very hot Puerto Rican summer afternoon and listened to Wichita Lineman. This island boy had no idea of counties or how an iced telegraph line would look or where Wichita was. But with my limited English I completely understood him and felt with and for him.

I could never make out what the hell Mick Jagger was saying.

Then it was time to wake up Wanda with her coffee and the paper. So, I changed to the Satie station.

The bread turned out great and we stayed in bed late reading the paper from cover to cover and having another cup of coffee and one more piece of banana bread. And then another. All the way ’till noon.

 

 

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As Fall Falls

So much going on and kicking up around here these days. We currently, this morning, have a baby downstairs we’re babysitting, and has to be just about the cutest happiest baby I’ve ever seen. On top of that, and what’s even cooler, is that Jess’s mom is visiting from Ethiopia (!!), and is having, from what I can see, a blast with the munchkin. It’s a pretty cool thing, I have to admit. Tons of travels, my wife being a rock star PhD (you’ll forgive me if I keep bragging about that one), and my favorite season change bearing down on even balmy swampy Florida. “I could go crazy on a night like tonight, when summer’s beginning to give up her fight

Recently, Jess’s brother sent the three of us on a cruise. Yeap, you read that right. I think I just got lucky as a third wheel and that the real target recipients were Jess and her mom, obviously, but I’ll totally take it. And I have to say, ya’ll, it had to have been the wierdest experience in a while. You’re in the middle of this gorgeous ocean, thinking you never knew that kind of blue actually existed in nature, but you’re in what has to be the definition of western excess, going to gorgeous islands where the majority of people don’t have plumbing in their homes. You adjust mentally, maybe spend the first few hours after boarding in the quiet of your cabin, and then roll with it. And once you do, it’s a pretty crazy experience. You find your quiet places (they had a gorgeous library, and the front of the ship was totally empty in the mornings), and go with it. I don’t know if I’d go on another one, but I’m glad to have had the experience (and MAN you should see my tan…).

In, hopefully, the next few months I can start telling you all about the shelves I’m going to build onto my studio walls (so I can actually earn back the whole ‘homestead’ title), and the pizza oven dad and I are planning on building in his backyard. Fall projects. I love Fall projects. Meanwhile, I wonder if I can sneak in a shameless plug. See, my buddy and I are putting together a kids book. Actually a whole series but for now we’re just focussing on the first one. He’s writing it, I’m drawing it, we’re both dreaming the thing up, and it’s based on this little dude Billy who started showing up in my sketchbook way back when, with his tugboat Sallyforth, in his funny little world with floating cities and robot cities and sea faring adventures. So, to hopefully support this endeavor, we set up a Patreon (that’s a link to our page). What’s Patreon, you ask? I’m so glad you did! I’ll just be a bit, let’s say efficient, and pull from Patreon itself…

“Thank you so much for asking – it’s honestly our favorite thing to talk about!

For creators:

Patreon is a way to get paid for creating the things you’re already creating (webcomics, videos, songs, whatevs).  Fans pledge a few bucks per month OR per thing you release, and then you get paid every month, or every time you release something new (whether it’s on SoundCloud, YouTube, your own website, or anywhere).

For patrons:

Patreon is a way to pay your favorite creators for making the stuff you love.  Instead of literally throwing money at your screen (trust us, that doesn’t work), you can now pledge a few bucks per thing that a creator makes.  For example, if you pledge $2 per video, and the creator releases 3 videos in February, then your card gets charged a total of $6 that month.  This means the creator gets paid regularly (every time she releases something new), and you become a bonafide, real-life patron of the arts.  That’s right.  Imagine you, in a long frilly white wig, painted on a 10-foot canvas on the wall of a Victorian mansion.  And imagine your favorite creators making a livingdoing what they do best… because of you.

 And for all you artsy people that would rather just watch a video…

 

So, we plan on setting up some cool rewards, and lots of cool behind the scenes and exclusive stuff for patrons. We hope you’ll check it out.

Until next time, when I really, really hope work will lighten up just enough for us to at least make jam or something. Pray for us.

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Travels, Farmlets and Bossy Animals

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Our ornery, bossy ladies.

Wow. When we get distracted we really, really get distracted.

I’m writing this from the relatively new coffee house in Gainesville, Curia, part of an awesome new compound on 6th and 23rd that includes a gallery, some art creation spaces, and a very large dinosaur statue. Personally that last one is the most impressive, second to the very, very good coffee. I mean, even the ornery Italian approves of their cappuccino, and that’s a big deal.

Since last we wrote, we’ve kept the travels moving after Costa Rica, up and down the east coast in search of dissertation materials for Jess’s PhD (which she completed, btw, but I’ll get to that), to Italy, to Germany where all of my nerdy fantasy dreams came true and all of my hopes that the world isn’t all plastic were re-assured and..well, I’ll get to that, to Sweden and it’s adorably tiny fishing village we went to a wedding in. We bought a house (with a chicken coop!), brought home a dog from Costa Rica, Jess graduated, I started a children’s book series with my bestie Jimmy Fishhawk, I started my own business Dancing Ghost Studios and abandoned the rat race (too many rats, I found out, for my tastes), and got married. So, we’ve been pretty busy.

The new PhD!

The new PhD!

So now we have what we call our farmlet, with 5 ornery bossy chickens, 2 possibly 3 cats, 2 dogs, a few mice in the attic and more spiders than I’m comfortable with. And an Air B&B cottage we love to have guests at, so get at me if you’re heading to Gville and are disenchanted with hotels, I got you covered. Our days are spent being bossed around by our various animals (even the mice), and both working from home. You should see my studio, it’s rad. Jess takes over the world downstairs as the Director of Operations of a law firm (I know, right?!), and I make websites, graphics, and draw the world in my head and it’s goings on.

So now we’re back. Or at least I’m back, I can’t promise I’ll get Jess back here anytime soon, she keeps getting distracted by her email. We’ll tell you all about our 2015 Gastronomic World Tour, give pictures and updates of our formulate (green eggs! Our anarchist chicken gives us green eggs!), and tell you about our travels. We have a few coming up and hope to spend most of 2016 abroad since 2015 is such a domesticated year for us. And I’ll tell you about how Germany, of all places, restored my hope in magic and life in general. I mean, we stayed in castles, ya’ll.

So stay tuned. If nothing else, you can watch me ramble and make terrible jokes. 😉

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On Food, History, and Memories

My (Jess’) grandmother passed away on the last day of 2012. She was born in a small village 100 km south of Rome in the province of Frosinone in 1916. She was a toddler when the First World War ended, six when Mussolini came to power, 15 when she married a much older man from the village nearby, and 16 when she had her first child (my father).  She birthed him alone with the help of a midwife in a big old farmhouse that still stands on the side of the road leading to the village. He weighed 5 kilos (12 pounds) and the labor took 12 hours. At least, that’s what she told me, in stories that would have me mesmerized, hanging on every word. She seemed to remember every detail, even as the years rolled on. She told stories of surviving the Second World War, of keeping her two children safe from bombs and military occupations, of hiding clothes and making food with nothing with a husband gone for four years fighting for fascism in Africa. She told me of her three-week journey, at war’s end, on a ship whose name she always remembered, to join her husband in the land Mussolini had tried to conquer for the expansion of Italy’s glory.  There she lived and raised her kids, in Eritrea, under the reign of Haile Selassie, a would be colonizer, until she retired back to Italy some dozen years later.  She and my grandfather bought a house in Rome, in which she lived until her death at age 96.

My grandmother was a formidable woman. A difficult, stubborn, fierce woman who never backed down from a fight.  Her universe centered on her home and her family — her husband, two kids, six grandkids, and seven great-grandkids. The center of her home was the kitchen, the smallest room in a large house crammed full with appliances and a tiny kitchen table.  That table was the most special place in the whole house for me. My grandmother and I would sit there and have cafe latte in the morning, dunking home-made ciambella into it con gusto, as she said.

Her eyes would sparkle as she watched you enjoy her food. Because food, you see, was love to her.  We would travel to visit her from Ethiopia–where we still lived even after she moved away–every year. And every year, without fail, she would open the giant wooden door to her house to welcome us. We would be greeted simultaneously by her smiling face and the smell of mouth-watering meatballs simmering on the stove. After hellos, we kids would sneakily make our way to the kitchen, where she had a loaf of bread waiting. We’d rip out a piece, dunk it in the meatball sauce, and feast. After fake protestations, she’d fork out a meatball and hand it to us with a grin, and there was no surer sign in the universe that this woman loved us with every fiber of her being.  That’s how it was with her.  Food was love, she would hand it out at every occasion. For snacks, she would reach into her freezer, filled to the brim with cornetti, Italian ice creams with a waffle base, vanilla cream and chocolate and nut toppings. Or she  would offer us grapes, which she peeled by hand for us. By far the most important display of love was at the dining table, where we assembled for lunch and dinner without fail for the duration of our stay. She would spend all day in the kitchen preparing these elaborate meals, all exquisite. She would relish in the sight of us sopping up chicken cream sauce from our plates with bread, or fighting over the last meatball, or taking three helpings of her roasted red peppers.  She was a difficult person, and this was her way of connecting.

As I grew up and she grew older, I came to realize that she would not live forever. So I would spend my time with her in the kitchen, learning her dishes, eyeing her technique, trying to figure out just how she managed to make everything so delicious. It was impossible to pin down a recipe, because her measurements were her hands, and every dish was tweaked every time, based on taste. She taught me many things. For one, that there are no shortcuts in the kitchen worth taking. Cook using low heat, she’d say, use only the freshest ingredients, and make sure they are  always the best quality. Most of all, use love and pay attention to the food. That’s why her meatballs were so amazing. She would first put together the tomato sauce, then painstakingly make the meatballs, then simmer them in sauce all day until the were so tender they literally melted in your mouth.

It was not easy, but it was absolutely unforgettable. So, earlier this week, as I was feeling sad for the loss of a friend, overwhelmed, and in need of love, I found myself in the kitchen. I pulled out my tomatoes and my knife and my cutting board and spent the evening making her sauce. Following her steps one by one, finding comfort in the easiness of it, now, after so many years of stumbling. As her stories and memories of her will inevitably start to fade, I find myself deeply comforted by the knowledge that she lives on in her food every time I make one of her recipes. Or really, anytime I step foot in my kitchen.  Her food, her passion for it, her stories about it, the way that she made it, the way it felt to eat it, the importance she ascribed to it…all of these factors come together in how I relate to food. It’s her history living inside me, and the history of her mother before her, and so on. Most of all, it’s her love that lives on within me, and how I have learned share it, almost a century later, that brings me joy.

Rest in peace, Nonna.

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Christmas Coquito aka Puertoriccan Egg Nog

Wait, stop the presses!

It just happens Publix no longer carries Yautía! My dad, not one to be deterred by important details, went: ‘yautía, boniato, same difference’ and boniato it was.
Boniato is another root, favorite with our Cuban neighbors.

So we replaced the yautía with boniato, and he’s totally right. He says it is probably the best cazuela he has ever had. Go figure. One small detail, though, it is very important you sieve the boniato, it’s kind of firmer and we caught a pile of lumps after mashing it. After that it was a creamy delight.

You can serve it from the pan if you use a nice one that makes it to the table, or try what we did, grease the pan well and line the bottom with deli paper just to assure it will not stick to the bottom and break when you flip it. But dad says he remembers it being served directly from the pan. It never lasted long….

coquitoBut moving forward, I promised you a recipe for coquito and being that alcohol really greases the wheels of social interaction, I won’t stall a second more. You’re still on time for tonight.

This is our family’s recipe. Some people have started adding eggs to it, but dad thinks that is an aberration (his words) so I wouldn’t dare. It’s so good you won’t care if the mayans shellacked the world.

2 cups coconut milk
1 ½ cups rum
1 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon

Mix all ingredients except the rum in a blender to make sure they are really blended. Sugar can be tricky sometimes. Add the rum and refrigerate.

Now, do you want to hear how it used to be done in the old days (before Coco Lopez)? Check this out:

You will need :

2 ripe coconuts
2 cups Puertorican rum
1 can condensed milk, undiluted
ground nutmeg
4 egg yolks (I wouldn’t go there….)

Crack the coconuts, separate the meat form the shell and remove the brown skin.
Wash, drain and grate the meat.

In an electric blender, pour 1 cup of the rum and add about 1/3 of the grated coconut meat. Crush thoroughly at high speed. Strain and squeeze through muslin cloth.

Pour the strained liquid back into the blender, add another 1/3 grated coconut meat and repeat.

Pour liquid again in blender, add balance of grated coconut meat and repeat. Strain and measure two cups.

(Here is where I will skip the egg yolks!)

Add the undiluted condensed milk and mix well.

In a large bowl, mix the liquid thoroughly with 1 cup rum.

Bottle and refrigerate.

This version is from Puerto Rican Cookery, by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli, 1975, but it is the traditional way.

So take your pick and have fun. No, really, have fun.

BTW, just tried the cazuela, it is amazing!

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Christmas Comebacks and Family Recipes

mmmmmmmm

mmmmmmmm

Ok, if any of you are still looking for a special Christmas dish to show off to your out of town guests, here is something out of the Puertorrican Christmas playbook.

According to my dad, when he was a kid, his aunts, grandma and his closest neighbors, would be making all sort of desserts and sweets all through the Christmas season and friends, neighbors and family would just drop in unannounced to wish you a Merry Christmas and of course to partake of a delicious Christmas dish that either they brought with them to share or that the ‘host’ would have ready to attack.

Meanwhile, aunts and neighbors would be constantly sharing goodies, sending samples around the neighborhood with the kids. So this afternoon Tía Lucy would send Majarete to Titi Marta, and tomorrow Titi Marta would send a dish of Cazuela to Grandma and the day after Grandma would send a plate of Tembleque to Doña Vangi. And the messenger would be the nearest kid at hand who would then get his just reward!

This recipe I am including is for one of my dad’s favorite dishes, one his grandma and mom would use to do every Christmas and that he specially liked because of it’s texture and because it was not too sweet, so you could really load up on it. Abuela is no longer with us, so we are going to make it in her honor to share with my uncle and aunt that will be visiting from Puerto Rico for New Year’s Eve.

And remember, it is not a Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve tradition, this is a 12 days of Christmas national pig out. Any excuse to party is a good excuse for a Puertoriccan! Dig in!

The name of the dish is Cazuela. There are many versions of this dish and there are even other dishes named the same way. Search me. My guess is that someone liked his cazuela so much that started naming anything he cooked cazuela.

The thing with this cazuela here is that you can tell it is a more recent and more Caribbean version, because it includes ‘yautía’ (taro root) a starchy root that can be eaten like yam or potatoes. It is very popular among Cubans and Puertorricans and it’s great just boiled and eaten as a side dish with good olive oil (as Jess would tell you, good Olive Oil is always, always crucial). Europeans had not been able to enjoy ‘yautía’ until they ran into it in the Caribbean. The very word is said to be Taino although some people think it is of Maya origin. But, really, by the time the Spaniards made it to Central America, yautía was already old news. So, we’ll still keep the credit. Just make sure you get the white flesh variety.

Ok, you are going to start with two cups of mashed yam, and one cup of pumpkin and yautía each (don’t worry, the list of ingredients follows below). You can get all of them, including the yautía at your nearest Publix or any Hispanic goods bodega. Peel and cook (boil) the yam and yautía for 20 minutes and then they are easy to mash. The pumpkin takes a little less, just check for when it’s ready. Don’t need to peel it, just boil it and spoon out the flesh when it’s done. Once they are ready, mash and measure two cups of yam and one of pumpkin and yautía each. Mix well and put aside to cool down a little.

Now run the blended mash through a sieve to pick out any fiber. All three will have some, you want a very smooth cream. Now you are ready to boogey.

Preheat the oven to 350 F and grease a shallow baking pan. Add the eggs to your mash, the melted butter, salt and spices and mix well. Add the milk and sugar and run through the sieve again. You want a smooth batter.

Put your batter in the greased pan (would be too hard to bake if you don’t) and bake for 1 hour at 350 F. It is ready when you test it with a toothpick and it comes out clean.

Feast your senses (smell and taste will specially go kaboom) and let me know how it worked.

Word of caution, this recipe is easier than it sounds (and it sounds pretty easy already) so brace yourself for some very impressed guests.

Next up, coquito for New Year’s eve! So stay tuned for a week of recipes.

Ingredientes:

2 cups mashed yam
1 cup mached pumpkin
1 cup mashed yautía
3 eggs, whisked
6 Tablespoons butter, melted
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup sugar
1 cup coconut milk

All ingredients can be found at your local Publix.

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To the Beach!!

It’s 7am and I’m writing this from Montezuma, Costa Rica, as Jess sleeps. We’re staying in a hotel called El Sano Banano (The Healthy(to me it sounds like it should be ‘Sane’) Banana) on the strip we drove into last night at the darkest 6pm I’ve ever seen, after driving to the sea, taking a ferry over with our car in the hold, and driving through unlit mountain roads for about an hour. The entire time, during the second driving leg, Jess asked me to help navigate and I suspect keep her mildly amused and sane by calling out if I see something anywhere on the road. “Dog” “Branch” “Human” “Car”…I felt like a very verbose dog. “Squirel”. I decided to take it a step further for amusement purposes. Let me explain. There are two signs here in Costa Rica that have us endlessly amused. “Parada de Autobuses” and “Puente Angosto”. The former because, obviously, it sounds like its announcing a bus parade. Jess confessed this to me as we were driving into Puntarenas, and every time thereafter we’ve seen the sign we call out “bus parade!” and start quietly immitating one to the best of our ability. I can do a mean fake kazoo. The latter sign, “Puente Angosto” might take a little explaining. It’s pretty hardcore Johnny thinking, I’m afraid. See, to me, it sounds a lot like the word for ‘anguished’ in spanish. Therefor, obviously, this sign is announcing a very very sad bridge. In fact an anguished bridge. So. After that, every time we see that sign, I call out “sad bridge”, Jess, when necessary, refers to the bridge as the sad bridge, and whenever we go over said bridge I say “don’t be sad, bridge.” You have to keep yourself amused somehow when you’re driving an hour along endless curves that break down on the side to a cliff and the see and there are no, repeat, No lights except for the headlights of oncoming traffic to blind you.
We finally made it in, tho, just in time to sit down to dinner at this hotel and see the dinner movie, a Norwegian horror flick similar to Kill Bill. You know the type, lots of face shots of people with their faces somehow removed, etc. We’re not entirely sure who thought this would be a good movie to watch over Penne al Pesto with a nice cup of red wine, but we’re pretty sure that the screenwriters were a bunch of pimple faced teenage geeks eating way too much Pez and drinking entirely too much Mountain Dew while writing it. “And THEN, he’ll jump in the outhouse toilet to hide! And after THAT he’s escape on a TRACTOR!” Yeah, I’m serious.
BUT…we’re at the beach. It’s looking to be a beautiful day, if likely rainy later (you start to be able to predict these things…). Our plan is to hit Montezuma today, drive over and stay in Santa Teresa tonight and check that out tomorrow and then end out the week in Mal Pais. Beach Daze!
For now, it’s time to wake the lady up and go work on my tan. Happy Hump Day!

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The Day The Earth Unraveled (and I did, too)

Today I experienced an earthquake for the first time. I was sleeping in after another night’s bout with insomnia and felt the bed tremble. Still asleep, I thought I was dreaming until I heard the doors rattle and a car alarm go off in the distance. I got up and stumbled into the living room, the earth still quaking beneath my feet. After a few seconds that seemed interminable, I found Johnny and headed outside with Ali. The earth stopped shaking and it was over. The earthquake registered a 7.6 on the Richter scale and had its epicenter in the Peninsula of Nicoya and resulted in two people dead and a dozen or so injured. We spent the morning contacting loved ones before they got a chance to get worried. But more than the earth unraveled today, on a personal level. I had a visit with a chiropractor/acupuncturist to figure out what’s going on with some pretty serious pain in my lower back. Since being in Costa Rica, it’s flared up quite a bit and started affecting my posture and generally causing me discomfort and unease. So, I thought it was a matter of adjusting my spine and maybe getting a few needles put in to relieve the pain. I guess it was more than that. I walk into the doctor’s office and see a man, mid-40s, American or Canadian, with an uncomfortably intense stare and a really strange energy. I immediately feel uncomfortable by how this man is communicating with me and the kind of questions he’s asking, including whether my mother had any miscarriages and if I resembled my grandmother. I realize this is an alternative healing practice, but this man gives off none of the vibes of other alternative healers I’ve encountered. When he can’t think of a word or concept, his eyes roll back into his head and his body language is all kinds of awkward. I don’t know why I didn’t just run out of there. I suppose propriety, and the fact that we’d driven an hour to get there. He makes some really strange comments. For example, I mention my knee surgery, and how the pain has been present in my back on and off since then, and he dismisses me completely and starts talking about my kidneys and how they are weak. I guess I stick it out because he’s uncannily perceptive in his strange way and identifies many aspects of my character right off the bat. With the physical exam, he identifies that I am stressed, scared, and sad – three conditions that I don’t recognize with myself except in passing. While lying on the table, he asks me to lift my arm and resist his attempt to push it down. With his other hand, he presses on my organs. Gall bladder—I resist easily. Small intestine – the same. Large intestine—I resist easily. Kidneys—and my arm shoots down like it hasn’t got an ounce of strength in it. I realize that this man who gives off crazy bad vibes knows something I don’t know and may be able to help me. He then gives me a spinal adjustment, but talks the whole time about how I have too much fire and says something about not having enough water and needing to balance out the two. I don’t know what he says, but my back feels straighter although it is still sore in my lower back. I tell him as much, and he proceeds to give me an acupuncture treatment. Unlike acupuncturists in the US, he doesn’t coax or explain or try to make me feel comfortable with the procedure. He just takes out the needles and taps them into my body in various places. I feel energy rushing out and rushing in with each needle. I lay there for ten minutes, maybe, as he works on another patient and answers the phone, which is ringing constantly. I try to pay attention to my body while relaxing. Finally, he comes back and takes out the needles. I sit up, and all my pain is gone. We make another set of appointments because, as he says, he’s not a magician. I leave the office feeling better physically but emotionally completely unstable. I decide I don’t want to go back – that he was a quack and that his energy was too strange to feel at all healing, even though my body feels better than it has in a long time. At a coffee shop a little while longer, I feel completely overwhelmed. My senses are super heightened – I am extra sensitive to noise, about to cry, and feel like falling asleep. Johnny reacts with infinite patience and we try to dispel the feeling by going to a movie. We watch Spy Kids, which does wonders for my soul if only because of all the children laughing. But then on the ride home we catch a taxi driven by a man who appears to be really high. We ask him to stop and get out and I can feel my nerves fraying again. Finally, we make it home and I run into the bedroom, turn off all the lights, and try to find balance again. I fail. I start crying. I cry so loud and so strong that my throat hurts and my body heaves. I have no idea what is happening, except that suddenly I remember the doctor’s diagnosis: sad, scared, and stressed. I’d dismissed it, but all of a sudden, it makes sense. I am aware of all my fears and my sadness and my stresses. That they exist and what they are. And now, my neck feels sore, but my heart feels purged and I think I’ll remember this day as one in which more than the earth broke open.

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(Mis)adventures in the land of active volcanos

I (Jessica) haven’t posted here in awhile, but we just spent three absolutely spectacular days in the Mount Arenal area of northwest Costa Rica and the experience was too awesome not to recount on the (virtual) page. Our trip included a stay at the absolutely congenial and adorable Essence Arenal hostel, where for $28 a night we slept in a building nestled on top of a mountain overlooking both the country’s most impressive free-standing volcano and the biggest lake in Costa Rica. The hostel is about an hour’s drive away (on mostly gravel roads) from the closest town of La Fortuna. It sits on a 180 acre plot of land that includes several trails, a waterfall, river, a swimming pool and a massive organic farm. The wonderful folks there cooked family-style vegetarian dinners for the guests every night using local ingredients from the farm and the area. It was both an amazing culinary experience and a great way to meet people. We made friends with folks from Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, England, Chile, Italy, and the US. On our second day, we attempted to summit Cerro Chaco, an inactive volcano with a crater filled with cristal blue water. On a good day, it’s a strenuous five hour hike, but on the day we tried it started pouring rain about two hours after we started walking. The vertical path became a series of small waterfalls and after another hour and two asthma attacks, the heavens started thundering and lightning. We huddled together and realized we were two out-of-shape hikers soaked to the bone, stuck on the near top of a mountain, all alone, with lightning and thunder going off all around us. To the question, “If you cry in the middle of a forrest and there’s no one to hear you, did it really happen?,” the answer is “yes.” So, after a bit of self pity we pulled ourselves together and realized we needed to stop being idiots and get our gringo asses off the mountain. So we did. One slick, painful step at a time. It took us what seemed like forever but we finally made it down in one piece and we thanked our lucky stars and drove our soggy pitiful selves back to the hostel for a warm shower.
There’s a lot more to our adventure, but I got carried away with this story and we are now about to leave for San Jose. I’m sure Johnny will catch up with the rest of the story, which gets exponentially more awesome and not quite as tragically pathetic. Cheers.

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Strained Adventure Muscles

Let this be a lesson to you: when going from desk jockey to gym monkey (and pool guppy) always, always stretch…extensively. With little else to do here in Costa Rica when we want to avoid work for a while, Jess and I have joined the local gym. Along with my swim lessons, it makes me quite the jock. The problem, tho, is the extreme difference this is from my past normal status quo. And when you make this big of a change, your body, it protests. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I got up Monday morning (yes, yesterday), bent over to pick up the dog, and completely and thoroughly strained my left side butt muscle. And let me tell you, that is some kind of ow. So there I am, I sort of end up on the floor, Jess comes running over asking what’s wrong and I point to my rear end sort of mumbling mostly nonsensical sounds that can be deciphered into “I think I’ve seriously injured my gluteus maximus” by your 2 years plus partner, to which she sort of furrows her brow, raises her eyebrow as much as she’s able (which isn’t much, it’s really cute), and says “….you broke your ass?!”

20120828-092701.jpgMhM. Yes, yes I did. And ended up in bed all day so that I could maybe have a chance of being healed by today. Also because it really, really hurt to do anything. These are the kinds of adventures you too can have in Costa Rica. That and comforting little dogs who are thoroughly and completely terrified of thunder and lighting…during the rainy season. It rains, with thunder and lightning, every…single…day. This poor dog needs valium at this point. I mean, Every Day. His blood pressure must be through the ceiling. So, Jess and I do our best to comfort the poor little guy.
Tomorrow we head out for another adventure, going to traipse around an active volcano cause THAT sounds like a good idea. The guide says there’s hot springs. Yeah, I bet there are. Nice and boiling. It also says it’s right in the path of the lava flow, if said active volcano ever got extra special active, but, y’know, take a few beers and don’t worry so much. Thanks, Lonely Planet. Seriously, tho, we’re pretty excited. We’re going to scout out backpacker hostels when we get there, take very little, and see about giving ourselves something to write about besides broken asses and admittedly adorable storm-phobic puppies.

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