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

Bill on July 13th, 2014


Hi,

I hope that you could completely and frankly give a flying whoop about the details of my recent love life, and yet I persist. That first installment was pretty funny though, wasn’t it?

By way of recap: A couple of years ago Denise had already been gone for two and a half years, and I’d concluded, however reluctantly, that letting a woman into my life would be a good thing. As it turns out this was easier to to decide than implement. After a reasonable amount of angst–the recounting of which I spared you, we were mostly agreed that such a woman must posses a few more than 23 years, whatever her cultural and linguistic heritage…

In Las Galeras any women I meet are likely to be Dominican, or European. There are very few Americans in Las Galeras. I recognize this and am OK with it but in the interest of thoroughness decide that I must take to the Internets in search of a partner before my upcoming visits to the United States in 2012. Perhaps you know someone who has employed the Internets as a dating strategy, or maybe you have succumbed yourself. If so, you’ll find the following familiar. If not: it’s like taking a drink from a fire hose. Accordingly, your results may vary.

I corresponded over several months and at greater or lesser length with 10 or 12 women. (Come to think of it, those exchanges correspond pretty directly with my hiatus from pestering you with these missives, but that’s mostly immaterial to this story.) Upon my return to Maryland that year in the month of May I made arrangements to have coffee or lunch or time on a park bench with a half dozen different women. I’ve gotta say, this was an honor. Without exception, these people were bright, funny, interesting and they were all-around good company, just not for me. Maybe I just wasn’t truly ready–I sure did think about Denise alot, and do still every day.

Inexorably, the day of my return to Las Galeras approached and I had still to connect with one particular woman. She has a pretty busy life, which I took as a good sign. Finally, we met for dinner and, honestly, it wasn’t a great date. The food was so-so, the restaurant noisy and crowded, and the staff was seemingly more interested in turning the table than anything else. But my companion was interesting and seemed interested also, and so we agreed to a second effort, with unfortunately similar results.

Inevitably time was running out. I moved the agenda by noting that I have a guest bungalow on my property in Las Galeras and suggesting that, if she wished, we might enjoy a short visit together in the Caribbean. I was pleased and only a little surprised when she agreed to this proposition. (She is probably the sort of woman who hitch-hiked home from college in her youth.)

Four days. A perfect length of time for a couple of virtual strangers getting to know a bit about each other. We discovered that we enjoyed each other’s company and spent nearly every moment together; it was quite nice. Except that she reminded me of Denise. Over and over and over again. I am not making this up when I say that thirty or forty times over the several days my friend would say or do something that rocked me back on my heels, it was SO reminiscent of something that my wife might have said or done in the same situation. It was disconcerting, to say the least.

It also was not fun. I didn’t like looking at this woman through the lens of my memories of Denise. It was abundantly unfair to my friend and quite uncomfortable for me to be reminded of Denise 10 or 12 times more frequently each day more than usual. Yet I was seemingly powerless to prevent it.

Finally, in the evening of the day prior to her departure as we were visiting on the porch, the subject of birthdays came up. It turns out that hers was the following month, November…

You see where this is going, don’t you?

“What day?” I asked. And, yes, as you’ve guessed, her birthday was the same day as Denise’s. I persisted. “What YEAR?” And, yes, however improbable it may seem: same month, same day and same year as Denise! What do you suppose are the incredible odds?

Nevertheless the two of us carried on for more or less a year, in one country and another, until I eventually came to the resolute feeling of loyalty to another. And we so parted amicably, as I turned in a direction Dominican.

About which more in the upcoming and final installment of this inexplicable–but mercifully brief–discursion into the subject of women.

Bill on July 6th, 2014

I like women, don’t you?

I’ve always liked women.

I like the way women look, I like the way they feel, and I particularly like the way that women work. I admire and on occasion try to emulate the more fulsome perspective that many women normally will bring to their particular view of the world. The fulsomeness, not the view. I like the ways in which women are smart. These are often, but not only, the very same ways in which we men are smart.

Perhaps you already realize that I’ve never had trouble following a smart leader, whether man or woman, black or brown or white, educated or uneducated–just as long as that person has a good idea and a sound plan and possesses the confidence to allow me to do my own work. And so I found myself inclined to be receptive a couple of years ago when one day a very intelligent uneducated and beautiful brown friend of mine said to me, in Spanish “Bill, it’s been more than two years since Denise died. Are you about ready to meet a good dominican woman?”

Actually, I was not.

But a familiar voice, issuing from somewhere over my shoulder, a voice more quiet than before but as clear as ever whispered “If not now, when?” And so I said that I was receptive to the idea, even if I wasn’t. In fact, a couple of years ago, I was really NOT ready to meet a good woman of any stripe.

But I had (and still have) a full load of respect for this woman, my friend and for her thoughts. My friend is independent, she is strong and resourceful. She has a terrific sense of humor. Like me, she’s a worker. And she knows how to work and how to play. She’s also got all of that beautiful, nurturing, and supportive freight that is often loaded by an American onto the terms “Dominican” and “Woman.” Further, I had been informed that this woman had TEN SISTERS. Surely, I assumed, her sisters and friends must be something like her? And so, with a fair measure of optimism, I said “Yes.” “Fine,” my friend said. “Come for lunch next Sunday. She will be here.”

Now I can tell you that it was Denise’s clearly articulated wish before she died that I find a partner after she was gone. Of course this makes perfect rational sense, and made sense even at the time. But the associated feelings are much more complex. I considered some of these feelings and something of this complexity as I stood in my friend’s kitchen while she waited for my answer.

As I’ve said, I have a great deal of respect for my friend. I value her humor and insight on any number of things. Nevertheless I had only a bit of confidence and a whole lot of hesitation in deciding to follow this particular lead. I suppose that it helped that she and Denise were becoming good friends in the years before Denise’s death.

Inevitably, Sunday arrived and in accordance with dominican custom I materialized at more or less the appointed time only to find no dominicana in evidence. (This is also customary.) So, in Spanish because my friend has no English, I asked where the rumored dominican woman might be. “Patience,” I was counseled. “She is working today, but she will be here. She has to return to work at three.” Of course I thought that was just about perfect, and so settled in to wait.

Not so very long after, I looked up to see a young woman coming down the garden path, walking towards the two of in the kitchen. I mean to say this was a very YOUNG woman. It turns out that this woman was not a contemporary of my friend, nor was she a young sister. This particular young woman was my friend’s daughter.

I’ll pause here for a moment so that we can all reflect and consider just a few of the implications of this turn of events. I’m sure that we can agree that this particular union was fraught with all manner of potential–some good, some bad, but all interesting. You with me on this? Good.

So, in my best Spanish, I introduced myself and thanked the young woman for agreeing to meet with me.

She had obviously gone to considerable effort to prepare for this meeting and accordingly I was quite complimentary. I went on to say that I had some questions for her and that I hoped she had some questions for me, to which she readily agreed. I confessed the obvious: that my Spanish was not very strong and so, with her permission, I proposed to be very direct. To which she also agreed. I asked if she would prefer to take a walk in the garden while we spoke, or if it was OK for me to ask my questions in the kitchen, in the presence of her mother. Again, she agreed.

So I leaned forward and while holding her gaze said in my best and most earnest Spanish “Tell me, exactly how old ARE you?” to which she happily replied “I’m twenty-three.” “Perfect,” I replied. “You’re an adult.” I thought that perhaps my next question might give her pause as I asked her how old she thought I was. But it didn’t. She considered her options carefully but didn’t take too long before responding with a hesitant “Fifty-four,” at which point I briefly but happily considered the possibility of a relationship founded on such an attractive delusion. Mercifully, I quickly came to my senses.

And so we continued: “Are you married? Do you have children? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you want children?” And because I didn’t want our contrived, but mostly pleasant conversation to turn into an utter interrogation–and because she was shy for myriad reasons, I went on to ask a few questions of myself on her behalf: “You may wonder why I do not have a woman in my life at this moment.” “Maybe you wonder where I am from.” “Perhaps you would like to know why I live in Las Galeras,” and so on.

During the course of our conversation I learned that she was employed as the nanny of an acquaintance of mine. It seems that not only was I dating my friend’s daughter, I was dating the baby-sitter.

Ah, the twists and turns that life can take!

Clearly this was an untenable position. But it was also one that I couldn’t unilaterally draw to a close. There was plenty of vulnerability to go around in that kitchen on that Sunday afternoon: Mom, who had optimistically introduced the fruit of her loins, the lovely young woman who had gathered up her hope and courage to put herself forward, and me, who, moving forward, had to live both with myself and with all of my neighbors. I had to find a way for my date to reject me, rather than the reverse–and it had to be a way credible to all and to which we could all agree.

And so my questions continued: “What is important for you in your life? How do you spend your time? Who are your friends? Where do you imagine you will be in ten years? In twenty?” Eventually this went all the way to: “Do you realize that I am old enough to legitimately be your GRANDFATHER? And so we began to laugh. At the same time, I was privately considering the prospect of a consummated relationship twenty years down the road. I think, thankfully, that her thinking may have proceeded along a similar line.

It took the two of us several days, or maybe it was a couple of weeks to gently and finally and with mutual respect lay the whole idea to rest in such a way that our collective and individual reputations were intact, maybe even enhanced a bit. I’m sure, gentle reader, that you can see that this was no easy feat and that it was at the same time a particularly important accomplishment, especially given that we all live in the same small village, one replete with numerous aunts, uncles, cousins and other lifelong friends.

And there, a couple of years ago, my local relationships with women more or less rested for awhile. I was off the metaphorical bench, if not entirely in the literal game: “poco y poco,” as we say in the RD–little by little.

Six months later, the husband of my friend–who was also a friend of mine–unexpectedly died; and a year after I began to keep company with my widowed friend–which is pretty much where I am now in the women department.

But before I introduce Nuris to you–and eventually I will, and it will be worth the wait, I’ll draft and pass along a short and maybe startling accounting the interregnum between daughter and mother. Hint: it entails using the Internets!

Just so you have something to look forward to.

Bill on June 12th, 2014

Hi,

I haven’t written one of these little posts in such a very long time that you’ll be forgiven for thinking that I’d lost interest–or perhaps for thinking that some guy named Guido had broken both of my thumbs and they were healing badly. But the real reason I haven’t written is the usual reason for such things: sloth. In this case my sloth has been directed to the keyboard, when perhaps it would have better been pointed over towards the hammock. An idea worth pursuing, I think. But I digress…

After awhile, not writing to you became the new pattern. Rather than drop an occasional note to you, I began to wonder how best to break what had become an inordinate silence. Physicists call this, I believe, inertia. It’s a powerful force. Surely I’m not the first to discover that sloth plus inertia is an unrewarding equation? The “drafts” folder in my email software holds numerous more or less worthy attempts to break this new cycle–and don’t get me started on the drafts folder in my mind.

And then this morning it came to me, and in that most familiar and comfortable of places, the bathroom. Well, actually this particular bathroom isn’t all that comfortable. Don’t get me wrong: it’s clean and spacious and well-lit, but it is also cold and concrete and a bit damp–as might be expected of a bathroom in a campground in Wisconsin in June. It’s the sort of bathroom that one enjoys and then quickly departs unless, for example, one is an amphibian.

So:

Turns Out It’s Actually a Toad…

I think we can all agree that this little guy is lovely, and generally more attractive than the frogs who frequent my bathroom at home. I suppose that a number of you may remember meeting the frog in my bathroom several years ago. (If not, you can relive the experience at www.elotrowa.com.)

For now I’m camping and couch-surfing my way across the US for a couple of months, visiting family and friends and the occasional frog and collecting blue glass bottles along the way (details to be found in the Drafts Folder.) So do keep your eye out for blue bottles and a bug-spattered Honda. As for me, I’m soon to revisit the Drafts Folders; honestly.

Finally, I hope that the surprises in your life since last we’ve been together have been mostly wonderful, as they have in mine (for details of which we must check aforementioned DF.)

Bill on April 26th, 2013

I used to think that my wife had an infinite supply of ChapStick. It was seemingly everywhere, the car, the kitchen counter, the knapsack. It was in every room in the house, on many of the shelves and in many of the drawers, even, inevitably, rattling loose in the clothes dryer with all of the tumbled laundry.

I began to think of the stuff as “our ChapStick.”

Mostly the tubes were of the original black variety but, in the years before she died a pink version increasingly appeared, accompanied occasionally by some random third color or the odd competing brand.

Only rarely did I use ChapStick, except second-hand. Never did I buy it. When it was wanted, ChapStick was easy to find in my world. I counted it a successful week when I prevented it from migrating to the clothes dryer or melting to the dashboard. There was no shortage of the stuff in my life.

But now I’m not so sure.

Of late, all of my ChapStick applications are first-hand. Sometimes I have to search to find a tube. Sometimes that search takes a while. It’s been quite some time since a tube of ChapStick turned up in the dryer.

I can foresee the inevitable day when I’m unable to locate a tube of ChapStick–even if I still find it inconceivable that I might at some point actually want to purchase one.

And so one touchstone to my previous life is gradually dissipating.

Those of you who have outlived a partner will know what I’m referring to: the shared bar of soap, that final tube of toothpaste, the eventual demise of an antiquated PC, the departure of the family pet. Some reminders of your co-joined life you couldn’t hang on to even if you wanted to, others don’t bear keeping.

I’m sure that Denise would want for me a measure of healthy and progressive detachment. And I’m equally certain that, were our circumstances reversed she would savor each slipstone of our lives as it melted into memory.

Fortunately, I got a million of those memories. And I hope you do, too.