Bill on March 6th, 2015

Hi,

Most of you reading this did not know me in my younger days. More specifically, you did not know me during my houseplant years. Yes, I once grew houseplants. Lots and lots of houseplants. At one point I had nearly 300 houseplants. Perhaps that the number is excessive doesn’t surprise you, whenever it was that we met. I certainly hope that’s the case.

At one time, the 300 plants and I shared a two bedroom apartment with my long suffering first wife and daughter and/or an office with three other graduate students. In fairness, not all of the plants were original with me. A handful of plants came with the wife, and it seems as though a friend and office mate may have brought a pot to the office from home–probably in self defense. Among the plants that Claudia Ann brought to the marriage were a splendid Jade plant and a ficus benjamina that would approach seven or eight feet in height in an annual growth spurt after suffering through a another winter of dry heat indoors in the Pacific Northwest. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s I spent a lot of time misting that ficus tree with a spray bottle.

It seems that with 300 plants one can establish all sorts of priorities in life, many of which have nothing to do with important things. Perhaps this point would be a valuable thing for someone who has 300 houseplants to realize, but of course I can’t say from experience. However, I CAN attest to the fact that in one’s declining years plants can take on a legitimately important role.

That’s the situation for me now here in Las Galeras, where some days it feels like I’m under floral assault. This is particularly true on the second sunny day after a several days of rain. Whooeee–how one’s tropical garden does grow!

It doesn’t seem possible, but I’ve now been working in this garden for 11 years. During this time I’ve packed or hired done more than 35 cubic yards of rock, 12 yards of sand, 130 yards of dirt and–during one especially memorable week, 12 yards of cow manure down into the garden in five gallon buckets. This has been the work of “making a garden,” in the most fulsome sense of the phrase. And caliché too…I’ve packed in 15 or 20 cubic yards of road base to fill the steps and paths that make it possible to traverse my New Garden, which was formerly just one Big Jagged Rock. So I’ve put a lot of material into the garden. I’ve also taken a lot out.

Things grew on this rock even before we packed all of this soil and terracing material down the hill. Oh yes, they did grow–and they grow they do yet! Trees and bushes, flowers and fruits, vines and sundry weeds beyond measure, all sending urgent signs of life skyward and sinking roots into this rock, fracturing it incrementally–maybe preparing a beach for the lapping waves once the deep sea eventually returns to this elevation. I dunno. But I do know that, with just a few years of arboreal neglect I could completely lose the magnificent view of the national park across the bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. So the garden bears maintenance, as well as development.

Over the years, I’ve worn out six or seven hardened steel Japanese pruning saws. I’ve sharpened my Swiss hand pruners and lopping shears to the point of replacing the blades. I’ve developed a healthy gardener’s equivalent of “Painter’s Thumbs,” the ones that we all have when working with the tools for any length of time. And I flirt again with carpal tunnel in the wrists. But–full disclosure: I don’t do it all.

I occasionally contract out a bit of pruning to a Haitian with a machete. Nice guy, hard worker. Beyond effective with the machete. Savage, actually.

But this note isn’t about Wale, my Haitian helper, nor is it about the making of this butterfly garden although both could easily be the subject of numerous reminisces, including several that are pretty funny. Neither is this missive about one’s declining years (except to the extent that it’s all about me–and I just may have commenced those years of declension.)

No, this missive is all about the Japanese pruning saw and the Swiss pruners and the big thumbs and the ficus benjamina near to the entrance to the guest bungalow. The twenty foot extension ladder also figures in the tale, and I suppose that the several gallons of Gatorade consumed deserve an honorable mention. This is the sum of a houseplant story of epic proportions.

In my time I’ve had a few far-fetched dreams–still do, I suppose. But I never once imagined that I would spend three days in a house plant, on an extension ladder, wielding assorted tools and dragging away enough brush to make a burn pile the size of a hi-cube van. Nevertheless, I did that. And it’s not the first time, nor is the ficus the only culprit. Whacking that tree is a boatload of work and not tremendously more fun than shoveling snow, but I suppose that it IS a more rewarding than the shoveling. In the end, I’ve got a nicely shaped giant houseplant to welcome guests, while snow eventually turns to slush and then melts, exposing a season’s worth of urban dog crap along the way.

Anyway, here’s a photo of the giant houseplant.

This photo doesn’t really do justice to the nicely shaped tree, now reduced to eighteen or twenty feet in height and just beginning to leaf out. To make up for that I’ve also posted several other photos of my garden here in Las Galeras on the El Otro WA blog. Please ignore those things that seem to need attention in the background of the garden photos; I do and mostly with impunity. Which is certainly not the case with soggy dog poop, is it?

As a bonus, and for those of you with a houseplant bent, I’ve also posted in this location on that blog a helpful ficus benjamina houseplant hint, gleaned a month or so ago when confirming that I knew how to spell ficus benjamina correctly. (Hot Tip: Wikipedia asserts that the Ficus apparently develops some sort of affinity for the familiar electro-magnetic arrangement of the universe and responds to having it’s pot rotated by dropping leaves. Who knew?)

It may seem difficult for my friends in the central and northern latitudes to credit, but no doubt your spring is just around the corner, and all the sweeter for it’s arrival after this hellacious winter past. While waiting for that turn, enjoy your anticipation.

admin on October 26th, 2014

Maybe you know more about duck than I do, since “Peking,” “Donald,” “crispy,” “Ugly,” “Odd,” or “Cold” is about the extent of “Duck” for me. Maybe I could stretch the definition to include the idea of bread crumbs on an idyllic pond but for me that’s as far as it’s gone. Until yesterday.

Those of you with better memory than sense–or those with nothing better to do than pore over the El Otro WA archives may recall my first real encounter with the French community here in Las Galeras. This occurred one evening a number of years ago when I accepted the invitation of Fan-Fan and Martine to join a group at their home for a pig roast (Seventeen Frenchmen and a Pig). Both Martine and Fan-Fan have figured in my life here and elsewhere since –I looked him up for a drink when in Toulouse s few years ago.

But now they’re leaving Las Galeras. They’ve sold their house and are pulling up stakes and so it is time to say “Happy Trails,” which is easier to translate than you might think.

Nuris threw a farewell dinner for the two of them and invited me to join her and her family for the meal. This I was happy to do. She’s a pretty good cook and–as you now know, she is swell company also. She had butchered and prepared a small goose, a chicken, and–as a special treat for Fan-Fan, a duck. All grilled over an open flame. Yum, right?

As the plates passed around the table and we helped ourselves to rice and eggplant, to coconut bread and homemade tamarind juice,I eyed the fowl. Fan-Fan snapped up a good portion of the duck as the plate passed by. I took note of a particularly juicy-looking and easy-to-manipulate chicken breast and a similarly-endowed drumstick. When the platter reached me I was suddenly and unexpectedly the object of much attention as the conversation focussed on the remaining duck. This sort of thing happens frequently enough in Las Galeras that I am no longer particularly taken aback when it does and am often rewarded in some wonderful and unanticipated way if I can but be open to whatever strangeness is to follow. It seemed that I would be honored to have duck for supper. And so, somewhat stupidly, I forked the remaining pieces of duck onto my plate and watched the chicken pass along around the table. OK; so duck it was.

I thought that the selection of a portion of duck might perhaps somehow be culturally important. Maybe to the French eating duck is symbolic of the end of an era, of departure. Or maybe eating duck is a harbinger of transition, a prelude to travel or of some other unfathomable French or Dominican tradition. I sure hope so because I can’t imagine any other reason we might have wanted to eat that bird.

I looked to Fan-Fan for guidance in approaching this part of the meal. Looking across the table I saw right away that his molars were at work, but they weren’t doing the usual grinding work of molars.

He had a chunk of that bird wedged into his cheek and firmly clamped in his back teeth while at the same time pulling energetically away from his face with both hands. Evidently he was trying to separate meat from bone. I soon realized that this was not an affectation. The knife and fork were all but useless. Addressing the bird required two hands and a powerful set of choppers.

The dinner festivities must have presented a pretty picture: a Dominican family and one French woman politely eating and chatting away with two full-faced and frenzied savages vigorously addressing the remains of a small bird with both hands. Our effort was prodigious and the results not so very impressive. Occasional involuntary grunts from our end of the table punctuated the hubbub of French and Spanish conversation. I surrendered any pretense of decorum and worked diligently, occasionally being rewarded with a fleck of flesh. “Yum” was a distant and fantastic idea, in no way part of this particular duck experience.

I learned that the duck in hand was an old duck. It once had a name. I don’t recall the name, but it was of the male gender. This duck apparently had a reputation also. I got the impression that the other animals might not miss him. I’ve no idea what he did to warrant the recent change in his circumstance but am pretty sure that the change was prompted by something he’d done, or failed to do. He had evidently enjoyed a lean but vigorous existence up to the point of his execution, beyond which he retained sufficient vital force to punish Fan-Fan and me from a new vantage beyond one veil or another. I’m thinking here that this was the duck from hell.

In further conversation I gleaned the useful information that duck is best consumed as “duckling.” After about six months a duck apparently becomes something else, something less edible. I share this information with you in the hope that you will never need to experience a tough old drake in just this way. Trust me. If the circumstance ever presents itself, you are very grateful.

You’re very welcome.

Come to think of it, “tough old drake” pretty much describes Fan-Fan. Intentional, or not, the symbolic parallel is beautiful and worthy of this last supper with my friends. I see now that the duck looks much better in hindsight. Farewell, Martine and Fan-Fan–and bon voyage!

And as for you, my mostly American readers, I hope that you are planning to share turkey with friends and family next month on Thanksgiving and that your bird–of whatever provence, is succulent such that your molars are used only for grinding.

Walk good.

Bill on September 13th, 2014

Hi,

I’m now sending these missives to a few more than three hundred people, about the same number as when I began nearly ten years ago. A few of you regularly share your own thoughts on the topic of the day; a number of you comment every now and again, and every once in awhile a new correspondent crops up. What you’ve written over the years is sometimes revealing and often touching. Not infrequently what you have to say opens the way to some new insight for me. Frequently what you write is amusing. (That, my friends, may be the single characteristic that all 300+ of you share: you’re pretty funny.)

I often regret that I’m the only one who benefits from your emailed replies.

Over the years I’ve posted every single one of my original missives to the El Otro WA blog, where I suppose that they still sporadically please some plucky person drifting the backwater of the Internets. Perhaps you’ve never looked at the blog site: www.elotrowa.com, but you too can wax publicly profound in the comments section for every missive therein…

Recently, my posts introducing Nuris and touching on the issue of race in the United States prompted some doozy replies–the first before I ever mentioned the word “race.”

A friend, a white woman, wrote back to note that I had twice referred to Nuris as “brown,” observing that the first use of the term was information, but that she found the second reference a little off-putting. Upon due reflection (and re-reflection) I think she’s right. And so the version of the story now on the El Otro WA blog refers to her color once, which is more than enough, really. Probably many of you had a similar reaction upon reading the original. I know that I did, when writing it. So thanks to my pal who stood up and addressed the point, reminding me of that which I know so well: words are important.

Another very prompt and direct response to my musing about race came from a bridge-painting friend (white, male). He directly said that I was reading too much into it, pointing out that it’s now 2014; I like Nuris, she likes me and, oh yeah–fuck what other people think. He went on to suggest that I get over myself and get on with it. This is why I love bridge painters. By and large, they’re decisive, direct, and prepared to live with the consequences of their actions.

Many of the replies that I received were written by persons of color, most of whom are women and many of whom shared something of their experience surviving and thriving despite the penumbra of racism through which we move in America. Their stories were illuminative, ranging from being forced to lodge in segregated hotels in the nation’s capital when traveling with a white dude in the 1950’s to being ignored at the counter at Macy’s just last week. To a person, these replies were supportive of Nuris and each one assured me she’ll do just fine when visiting the United States. Thank-you. I’m sure you’re right.

Anyway, I’m now back in the Nearly Paradise that is Las Galeras and am focussed on practical matters: where can I find #6 2+G UF cable, what does it take to successfully apply for a US Visitors Visa from the RD, and what is a really good recipe for curried chivo? (Damned chivo–into the yucca again.)

Hope that you all are enjoying the bounty that autumn provides in much of the US, and that you’re generally impervious to the incessant and sensationalist yammering that passes for journalism these days.

Best,

Bill

Bill on July 25th, 2014

Well, it turns out that I come from a racist place. I don’t mean the Dominican Republic; I’m not entirely sure if I’m referring here to the United States, or just to what’s inside my own head. But either way: definitely racist.

I suppose the possibility that our nation is racist should not be news to Americans, at least those Americans who have attained the age of reason. It would be difficult to deny the implicit racist quality in our culture, never mind overt expressions of racism that we all encounter with more than passing frequency. Most thinking whites are at least vaguely aware of this implicit racism, beginning nearly from the time when we realize that there are a variety of cultures in this country. I suppose that citizens of color inevitably tumble to this fact much sooner.

My own awareness of racism has stemmed exclusively from the advantageous position of being white. Because of my color, my awareness of racism is mostly an intellectual awareness. In my life I haven’t frequently been the target of overt racism. I haven’t been chased or stoned when returning to my neighborhood very often. Generally, racism in America has been pretty easy for me to overlook. Any racial pain I’ve experienced has been cerebral or sympathetic or sometimes both–and always mitigated by my color. This bears repeating: my knowledge of racism is a rational and not a visceral knowledge. Accordingly the awareness is surprisingly easy for me to ignore. I suppose that I am not alone in this.

On the rare occasion when the subject of institutional or societal racism comes up in conversation with my American white friends, one of two things generally happens: they either agree that cultural racism exists and think that I’m a Sensitive-New-Age-Kind-of-Guy for recognizing the fact, or they disagree, say that I’m full of shit and a Sensitive-New-Age-Kind-of-Guy for thinking that way. Either way, the conversation generally doesn’t go much further, and in either case I find myself pigeon-holed in Sensitive-New-Age-Kind-of-Guy Hell, perhaps for life.

I usually don’t talk about racism with my friends who are black. Maybe we’re working our collective way out of our respective holes. Possibly we’re timid; I dunno.

We’d probably be a bit better off as a nation if we spent more time as individuals discussing the issues of racism–institutional and otherwise, or at least actually listening to the discussions of others for a change.

But that observation is really not what prompts me to write this particular note.

When I first thought to write this little missive, I’d been back in the US for ten or twelve weeks and on the road for a couple of months before doubling back and revisiting my mom and step-mother–this summer being an extended version of my regular semi-annual “old lady circuit.” This year the trip will again conclude with my reunion with my friend Nuris in the village of Las Galeras. You will recall that Nuris is the new and younger (but not crazy-young) woman in my life. While I’ve known her for more than eight years, this note is my way of introducing her to you. May she forgive me.

Originally, we’d hoped that Nuris would join me on my cross-country, blue-highway, driving-and-tenting odyssey. But the US Embassy in Santo Domingo apparently didn’t think that was a swell idea. The Interviewing Consular Officers rejected her application for a tourist visa on three separate occasions last winter, despite her compiling a raft of documentation confirming her deep roots in Las Galeras and indicating the strong likelihood that she will return home at the end of her travel. For now I’ll leave you to speculate on your own as to why she has been denied thus far…

Of course we will try for a visitor’s visa for the fourth time. I do want to eventually be able to show her some of what is wonderful about our nation.

And so it came to pass this summer that I once again traveled the old primary highways through the mid- and small-sized towns of Middle America, passing from the mid-Atlantic through New England, across the upper mid-west, around the Pacific Northwest, and back again across the Great Plains, omitting on this go-around California, the Southwest and the South. Though I was alone in the car and in the campgrounds, and was sometimes lonely even when with friends I did have pretty good company in my own head, occupied as I was by imagining how Nuris would see the people and things that I saw, how she might experience the things and people that I experienced.

Of course, this country is BIG. Really, really, unbelievably BIG. And a lot of it is empty, really, really, incredibly empty. It was fun to imagine this vastness registering with Nuris. Surely her experience will eventually result in my mastery of several new Spanish words.

Once you grasp the basic fact set: vast, mostly empty, there is the bafflingly broad and seemingly random cultural diversity of Americans. We display our culture individually and, perhaps confusingly, differently when in different groups. Like most of you, I’m American, reasonably smart and experienced in my own culture(s). Mostly I can follow the cultural cues presented by my compatriots. But how might things seem to a woman from rural small-town Republica Dominicana?

Nuris would surely recognize the pre-teen kid from Montana offering to help me set up my tent, as fearless and open and helpful as any Dominican kid. But I cringe with embarrassment at the thought of Nuris walking into a a group of whites outside of Bismarck or Pittsburgh or Bakersfield and feeling the atmosphere suddenly flash three degrees more tense simply because of her arrival and before she had the opportunity to offer a simple “buenos días.” Lord only knows what might follow. I’m sure that the experience would often pass for normal; not infrequently it would be wonderful; and–face it, sometimes not so much. Regardless of what scenarios I might imagine, the flat fact is that she hasn’t internalized anything about being black in America. I assume that this could occasionally pose a problem.

Probably, the Consular Officers know this, even if I’m just figuring it out and Nuris is still bidding for the crash course.

Anyway, these sorts of thoughts are not be entirely new for me, but the frequency and the degree to which I’ve been pondering such things on this trip is.

I imagine that this sort of awareness is in no way a new experience for my adult friends who are black. I’m further realizing that there must exist individual and cultural black coping stratagems that function in ways similar to to the operation of my white mechanisms for largely ignoring our culturally racist society. Life otherwise would simply be too exhausting.

Traveling in a foreign land is difficult enough when one can anticipate most of the cultural rules. Misapprehend, or overlook altogether the ways in which patterns of race or class operate in the United States and one would run the risk of being more than merely exhausted. Bewildered, perhaps; but possibly dazed, hurt, and confused.

As a nation and a partner we’ve much better to offer Nuris, and to our compatriots of color.

That I know of, Nuris has no individual strategies for coping with racism. I’m pretty sure she has no culturally developed coping mechanisms either. This is not only or even mostly because she in a member of the numerically dominant racial class in the RD. Rather, it is because the Dominican Republic is notably and palpably not predominantly a racist society. (Although television, and the values expressed by US television may be changing this as we speak.)

The implicit racism in our culture, heretofore mostly only intellectual for me, will certainly be more explicit and visceral for her. I hope that I can help her prepare adequately for this experience, which will be absolutely alien. More importantly, I hope that our cultural deficiencies don’t prevent her from appreciating what is wonderful and generous and good about America and Americans.

Come what may, Nuris is a big girl and no doubt she can survive a visit to the United States. Maybe she can even mostly sort through the miasma of our history and present times to discover culturally appropriate and racially effective responses to the unwarranted bias that she will surely encounter during her visit. Have I mentioned that Nuris is very, very bright? Come what may, I’m confident that she will proceed with grace and with humor.

But first, there’s that small matter of permission from the Department of State…

Wish her luck.

Bill on July 17th, 2014

Are you familiar with bottle trees?

In parts of the American South–places like Mississippi, Alabama, and Takoma Park, Maryland, there is a tradition of stringing empty glass bottles from the branches of trees, or inverting them over twig ends on the trees. The result can be quite lovely and, seemingly, effective.

The tradition holds that in addition to being lovely the bottles pose a certain attraction to malevolent spirits who are then moved to enter the bottles, becoming entrapped. A variant of the tradition has the spirits dying in the rays of the rising sun. This is a pretty satisfying tradition, worthy of adoption and one that fits right in with the environment in which I live in Las Galeras.

And so I have a bottle tree–two in fact, one of which is over six meters tall and made of reinforced concrete. The other is more natural and a bit closer to home. Call that second one the penultimate layer of defense against any evil spirits who happen to make it past the towering structure erected near to where my lane diverts from the two-track road on our little hill. This “tree” is guarded by an alarming-looking baby doll wielding a reflective shard of broken mirror. (I break from the bottle tree tradition at the ultimate layer of defense…but that’s another story.) In keeping with tradition, I choose to believe that blue bottles are best for this purpose, although red ones are also quite effective.

Those of you who have traveled in the Dominican Republic know why green bottles are the RD default whenever bottles are called for in any quantity. I have lots of green bottles on my trees, and a few brown in addition to the blue ones. I’m looking without letup in the RD for blue bottles and in the US also. When traveling from the United States to the Dominican my luggage is something of a marvel for the TSA crew in Washington and for the Dominican customs inspectors when I arrive in the RD. A raft of blue bottles in the suitcase is certainly in keeping with the typical contents of my checked luggage.

In both countries friends have begun to save the occasional blue bottle for me. You, too, can play along, if you wish. Recently I’ve planned a trip to Switzerland to visit dear friends and to take custody of a particularly unusual and elegant blue bottle lovingly retrieved from atop a recycling bin in Herzogenbuchsee. My mom has contributed a couple of bottles from Wisconsin a few years ago, and I just the other day negotiated the purchase of a couple of giant German wine bottles from a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in Seattle (2 for $5.) A couple of weeks ago some friends on the Long Beach Peninsula offered up a couple of wine bottles from the Yakima valley, which bottles were decorated with an illustration of a blond in a swirling white dress. Seemingly Yakima’s version of Marilyn Monroe posing over a ventilation grate and selling wine.

Coincidentally, the very next stop on this particular odyssey across the United States was to spend a couple of days with some artist friends on Vashon Island. Some of their work is in glass and they have a kiln. So it seemed a natural for me to melt one of the painted bottles flat and slowly anneal it over the many hours necessary to solidify without cracking. This resulted in Flat Marilyn.

Soon she’ll find a home in the bottle tree, but until then her image is to be found at: www.elotrowa.com