For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, Patrick Rothfuss’s two novels The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear are masterpieces of storytelling. The characters are complex and richly developed, the writing is lyrical and meticulously crafted, and the plot is engaging. This is one of the best stories that I have read. Rothfuss’s writing is clever, and thoughtful… and even when not a lot is happening, I am drawn along because I care about the characters.
So when I had the opportunity to check out the audiobook from our incredible Seattle Public Library, I took it even though I had already read the book. I wanted to read it again anyway.
I got hooked on audiobooks when I was commuting to a day job, and had to spend 30 minutes in the car each morning and again at night. An intriguing audiobook would make otherwise dull and frustrating time pass quickly. I cannot recommend them enough… especially if you can get them from the library. Audiobooks are relatively expensive because the publisher has to pay the voice actor(s), sound engineer, and producer. A long novel can be upwards of 40 hours long, which adds a substantial cost to production above what the author gets. And yet, I would say that the experience of a well-produced and expertly-narrated audiobook is worth the money.
The Brilliance Audio productions of the Rothfuss books are worth it. Days and days of entertainment and distraction while you get stuff done. It’s a pretty great deal actually.
The narrator of both The Name of Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear is Nick Podehl. His reading is marvelously expressive. He does voices for all the characters as one would expect, and in my opinion he has got them down cold. To me, his voice is Kvothe’s voice.
I don’t have a twice a day commute anymore, but even so I seem to have less and less time to sit down and read. When I’m not writing or editing at the computer, I’m up and about doing something around the house. I find that listening to a good story is a perfect way to pass the time when I’m battling entropy around the house — washing dishes, cleaning a room, or working on a project that’s primarily physical like car repair or construction. I’ve gotten to where I even listen in the shower from time to time. This isn’t good for my hot water bill as I tend to take longer showers when I’m involved in a good story.
But I also get a lot more dishes washed. Thanks Pat and Nick!
Do you like audiobooks? Have you read or listened to any that you particularly love? Let me know in the comments.
Karawynn and I caught a local flight from a tiny airstrip near our resort hotel on the Pacific coast to the big city of San Jose and stayed the night at a low-key but comfortable bed and breakfast before beginning our long journey to the jungle.
The next day, we woke early and took our breakfast in the pre-dawn with sounds of the waking city filtering in through the patio doors. The first leg of our journey took us over paved highways and roads in ever-thinning traffic, winding through suburbs, past coffee plantations and up into the mountains.
Come Mister Tally Man
I expected this four-and-half-hour drive to be dull, but it wasn’t. The guide was informative and entertaining. The mountains are all volcanic and many of them are still active. They’re blanketed with lush vegetation and sculpted by streams and waterfalls, some of which we could see from the road. On the East side of the mountains, the land slopes down into a broad, lowland expanse which eventually ends at the Caribbean Sea. This is where pineapples and bananas are farmed, packaged, and shipped out to destinations around the world.
After nearly three hours, we turned off the paved road and drove slowly on gravel. We passed pastures of grazing water buffalo and drove through acres upon acres of banana plantations. When the guide asked us if we wanted to stop and take a look at a banana processing and packing plant, we readily accepted.
Some details that I wasn’t previously aware of: Each banana tree produces only one hanging cluster (aka bunch or banana stem) which can contain hundreds of bananas. This stem is bagged while still on the tree to prevent monkeys and bugs from eating the fruit. When the stem is ready for harvest, it is cut from the tree, hooked, and put on an overhead track. After harvesting this one banana stem, the tree is cut off at the base and the next tree will regrow from the roots.
Workers pushed the hooked banana stems (with their hundreds of bananas) along the track to the processing warehouse where more workers used machetes to cut off the tiers or “hands” of four to six bananas and put them into sorting baths.
In the plant we stopped at, there was a clear division of labor. Men transported the bunches from the trees and cut off the banana hands. Women sorted out singles and any bananas that were too ripe to survive the several weeks of shipping. Some of these were slated to be sold locally in fruit stands and stores in the cities, but the majority of the cast-offs were to be used in animal feed. Women also bagged the bunches after they had been sprayed with (what we were told was) fungicide. Men packed the crates for loading in refrigerated train cars, destined for the port at Limón where they would be loaded onto ships and transported to Europe or the US.
I had not expected to see this element of Costa Rican life, but it was illuminating. Costa Rica is the second largest exporter of bananas in the world, behind Ecuador. I have been eating bananas my whole life, but (with the exception of Hawaii) I have never lived close to where bananas actually grow. They cannot be considered a local food. So I started thinking: how much effort does it take to get a 25 cent banana to a grocery store near you? What are the economic and social constructs in place to make this happen in Costa Rica?
It turns out that there’s a lot of information about this online. Plantation workers make around $14.50/day and live in small, remote villages. From what I could see from the villages we drove through, the buildings were in good shape — vastly better than dilapidated city slums of San Jose we could see from the air on our flight in. The plantation villages each had a church and a soccer field with goals… seriously, even the tiniest village where I could not identify a store or a medical clinic had the necessary underpinnings of society — god and football. I have no idea how much $14.50/day can buy in rural Costa Rica, but (for reference) the minimum wage there is about $10/day.
The Costa Rican economy is in transition. Once exploited for resources like lumber (much of the rainforest that we visited later had been extensively logged only 70 years ago), tourism is the main industry today. Eco-tourism relies on a robust and healthy environment so its rise has given greater economic importance to sustainability. This has led to a decrease in the clear-cutting of forest land since crops like bananas and pineapples, while profitable, are no longer the clear winner economically. In fact, land owners with rainforest on their property are paid by the government to keep their forested land growing un-pillaged.
Once we left the banana packing plant behind, our guides were eager to show us some wildlife. We did spot some howler monkeys off in the trees on our left, and we also noticed a sloth hanging from the overhead wires. We eagerly gathered up our camera and got out to look at the sloth… only to slowly realize that it was dead, apparently electrocuted on the power lines. It could not have been dead for too long as we could see no decomposition. Through the binoculars, we could see quite a number of flies on its nose and face.
We left saddened by this sight, and acutely aware that denizens of the forest are ill-equipped to survive in the world of civilized man. Our van ride ended at a boat dock and we caught our ride to Tortuga Lodge from there — an hour and a half motor boat journey up river to the Tortugero National Park. Our day had progressed in stages from civilization through rural agriculture and the blurred interface of agriculture and wilderness, but now we were taking the final step and were surrounded by rainforest.
There are only two ways to get to Tortugero: 1) boat up river as we did or 2) fly into the tiny airstrip and get on a boat from there to the park. The latter is faster, but in both cases you have to go on the river. And to actually see the rainforest and its wildlife, you must use its numerous waterways. The trees and other foliage grow on narrow islands and land spits surrounded by a maze of slow-moving streams and rivers.
As we motored toward our destination in the jungle, I felt the cool spray of water from the broad river whose banks were impenetrable walls of green foliage. The gray clouds threatened rain, and I could not help but be reminded of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the more modern Apocalypse Now. Fortunately, we weren’t headed toward a primitive, bacchanalian orgy in the heart of the jungle, but as we left the structures of society farther behind I felt a surge of excitement. Perhaps I gained an appreciation for Conrad and the sense of wildness that lurks inside all of us.
The purpose of the boat ride was to transport us to our lodging, but the boat pilot had been a naturalist guide for over a decade, so he couldn’t help but show us a caiman in the reeds and point out various birds along the way. We would later get to see many more animals and a vast panoply of birds, but each of these little steps were like peeling layers of civilization away.
Until finally we reached our destination. The logical progression would have us spending our time in the rainforest living in tribal huts with the local native peoples… but thankfully that was not our fate. Instead, we pulled up to the dock, and were greeted by the exceedingly gracious staff of the Tortuga Lodge. They escorted us to a river-view table in their dining hall and served a fantastic late lunch of mango ceviche salad, garlic shrimp, and green beans. These were luxury accommodations in the middle of the jungle, and a much better denouement than Conrad’s “The horror. The horror.”
Welcome to the Jungle … with Maid Service
Over the next three days, we slept in a very comfortable king bed, explored the gardens, ate excellent food, took guided boat tours through the rainforest, ate excellent food, kayaked through the jungle, ate excellent food, and helped teach English at a local school. Did I mention the food?
With the exception of the leatherback turtles (which we knew would not be nesting during our visit), we saw all the advertised wildlife — squirrel monkeys and capuchins, sloths (alive), toucans and herons and an array of other birds, and dozens of poison dart frogs. The high points have to be 1) the epic battle we witnessed next to the pool between Godzilla the huge iguana and the mated pair of yigüirros (clay-colored thrush), and 2) glimpsing endangered green macaws.
Our guide, Norton, who was blind in one eye (it was missing) and could identify every animal by its sound, picked out the green macaws and pointed us in their direction as they flew past. He didn’t see them, but I caught a glimpse of the stretched-diamond shape of their tails, the distinctive line of their wings, and the sharp hook of their beaks. We only saw them for minute before they disappeared into the trees, but it was a thrill to find them. There are estimated to be fewer than 2500 mature macaws left in the world. Their habitat has been dwindling due to extensive deforestation, and their desirability as a cagebird has resulted in massive poaching.
These macaws are beautiful and smart. They live 60 years or longer. Most captured birds spend their lives in cages and their owners die before they do. The northern Caribbean coast is their only natural habitat left in Costa Rica, and even the staff at the lodge go months without spotting one.
The iguana battle started when the seven-foot lizard decided it was going to climb the tree where the mated pair of yigüirros were nesting. We watched the birds dive-bomb the iguana over and over as it clawed its way up the trunk of the tree. Once it got past the vee in the trunk and chose the branch that led away from the nest, the birds abruptly stopped their violent harassment of the lizard… which was mostly ignoring them anyway. It turned out that Godzilla just wanted to get to the top branch and sun itself, and Karawynn later researched it and learned that only young iguanas eat bird eggs. The older ones like our massive friend feast only on leaves.
Our trip back to civilization was much different. We took a small plane from the airstrip across the river. It was a five minute boat ride instead of the hour-and-a-half ride we’d had coming in. There was no van ride, no banana plantations, although the aerial view of the waterfalls was nice. Soon, we were back in the traffic and bustle of the big city — asphalt and cinderblock, glass and metal, diesel fumes and a tourist kitsch superstore. I knew that many people fly to the jungle the way we flew out, but for me the journey itself enriched the whole experience.
June brought more traveling. After getting back from our month in Mexico, Karawynn and I were in Seattle for only three weeks before we lit out again for regions southward. It was great to see my brother and sister and their families under happy circumstances. The previous time we’d all seen each other was when Mom died — a very sad and difficult period.
The wedding took place at the picturesque Mission Espada in San Antonio. What a great location to celebrate a new union! Dad and Carolyn both had previous marriages with wonderful spouses who’d died. They are re-starting their lives. Carolyn is much different from my mom, but she is a good soul, and I am overjoyed that she and Dad found love together. I can barely imagine what losing a life-partner is like — a traumatic and painful experience that leads to a scary and lonely and desolate place. That Dad has another chance to love and be loved is a precious, rare, and wonderful gift.
I no longer consider myself Catholic — or religious in any way really — but I was happy to get the opportunity to read at the (traditional Catholic) wedding. Participating in the ceremonial launch of a new stage in my dad’s life meant a lot. These days it is so easy to be cynical about love and commitment, but seeing the happiness that Carolyn has brought into Dad’s life after the heartbreaking anguish of the previous few years strips away any cynicism I have and replaces it with wonder and joy.
Carolyn and Dad were generous (or insane) when they decided to invite their whole combined family to accompany them to Costa Rica after the wedding. Karawynn and I joined the twelve others traveling to the Guanacaste region of the Central American country.
Costa Rica abolished its military years ago and has used the extra money to improve education and healthcare — as well as to invest in creating a profitable tourist industry. Tourism is Costa Rica’s primary economic engine. I have a lot of respect for a country that builds an economy around trying to educate the world about ecology and nature. Can you even imagine your country doing that?
The first part of our stay was at the Flamingo Beach Resort on Playa Flamingo in the northwestern (Pacific) part of Costa Rica. This was a typical, if smallish, resort hotel with a nice pool in a picturesque location. Like resorts I’ve visited in Mexico and Hawaii, much of the hotel was open to the outside. But the heat and humidity made just standing around in the lobby feel like taking a sauna. Thankfully the rooms had air conditioning, and the pool was cool.
One of the drawbacks of staying at a resort hotel is that everything is outrageously expensive. We had not been able to afford the all-inclusive package so drinks and food were additional expenses. But the nearest town was a couple kilometers away and none of us had a car. So a few of us decided to risk the impending rain and walk to the nearest grocery store. This decision turned out to be both ill-advised and serendipitously wonderful.
The road traveled along the curve of a beautiful bay, between the beach and fields where (literally) hundreds of bright green parakeets flitted amongst the low trees and bushes. And huge vultures perched on fence posts and stretched out their wings to dry them in the intermittent sun. But just as we’re about half way there, it started to pour down rain. By sheer luck, we’d just passed a local cantina / bar with outdoor tables made from polished slabs of banyan tree. The tables were sheltered from the rain by thatched reed umbrellas. Since the rain had drenched us to the bone in seconds, we decided to stop and wait… and spent the next hour drinking local beer and staring out at the rain-stippled bay. What a great experience!
Not-so Accidental Tourists
The next day, all fourteen of our group took a canopy tour — a multi-part excursion to Buena Vista that included ziplining through treetops, horseback riding, a local-food lunch, a very fast water slide, and geothermal pools with sauna and mudbath.
While this is billed as eco-toursim, it really is not. It’s a lot of fun, and definitely worth the $125 per person, but it’s really all about fun and not about nature or experiencing the rainforest. For us, that would come later.
The following morning we said goodbye to Dad, Carolyn, and the rest of the family both old and new. We had made plans to spend the last half of our time in Costa Rica in a completely different environment… all the way across the country on the Caribbean coast, and in my next post I will tell you all about traveling there, and our time in the jungle.
Karawynn and I are in Mexico for a month, undertaking an experiment wherein we gather data to determine if we can live here after Claire moves out in five years or so. Karawynn discovered this particular place after detailed online research of a variety of expat communities that matched two main criteria: 1) good weather year round and 2) lower cost of living than in the United States. Thus we chose to visit the Ajijic Mexico area, along the north shore of Lake Chapala about 45 minutes by car from Guadalajara — the second largest city in Mexico.
We’ve been here about a week and half now and here are my impressions so far.
Best thing about living here
Winner: Weather and physical beauty
We decided to come here during the “worst” time of the year for weather. This is the hot season here. It has been in the mid-80s during the day and mid-60s at night. Ajijic is at high elevation so even though we’re well into the tropics, it doesn’t get as hot as it otherwise would. It has been sunny, and during the afternoons the sun can be intense, but most people just stay inside during that time of day. “Siesta” closes down shops and services for a couple of hours.
The most beautiful place I have ever lived was Hawaii. The combination of rain forest and beaches and dramatic volcanic cliffs is hard to beat. But this place is very picturesque. Lake Chapala is surrounded by mountains; there are lots of bright, colorful flowers; and many many birds!
Runner up: Cost of living
It turns out that Ajijic is more expensive than a lot of Mexico. It’s a little touristy town with art galleries and fancy restaurants. It’s like that coast town you go visit where things are just a little more pricey because it’s pretty and a lot of people go there to get away. Ajijic is a popular place for Mexicans from Guadalajara to come on the weekends.
Even so, it’s a bargain compared to what we’re paying to live in Seattle. Plus, there are ways to avoid the more pricey places. For cost of living, I think it’s a win.
Worst thing about living here
Winner: Language barrier
I only know a few words of Spanish so I am finding it difficult to impossible to really communicate with the local folks who don’t speak English. I am learning the language, but have just gotten down the basics of ordering food at a restaurant and asking how much something costs at a store. I’m also finding that I have social anxiety and fear around not speaking and understanding. Some of this is embarrassment at being a stupid gringo, and some of it is fear of making a fool of myself by saying stupid things in Spanish. I’m working at overcoming this fear because it really is counterproductive to actually communicating.
In the time we’ve been here, I have gone from essentially zero Spanish to being able to (barely) get by in a store and a restaurant. The social fear is still there, but I can make myself understood for the most part. I know that as I learn more Spanish (which I am doing as fast as I can), I will get more and more comfortable with interacting with people in Spanish, but I still worry that I might never be able to break through the language barrier completely.
Runner up: Missing home
It may seem strange, but even after such a short time, I already miss friends and family in Seattle. I know that this particular issue will be a problem for me regardless of where we go, and some of that is related to feeling disconnected from my younger daughter Claire, who (at 13 years old) isn’t the best at keeping in touch long-distance. So this is an issue I will have to deal with in some fashion regardless of where we move… which doesn’t make it any easier of course.
Most difficult adjustment to make
Winner: Writing space
Because we are here for a whole month, this is a working trip for me. But so far, I’ve had a difficult time getting work done. For one thing, I’m distracted by all the interesting and new things there are to do. We’ve spent mornings (when it’s cool) exploring the town by foot, buying food at the various stores and meeting people. The afternoons are warmer and lazier and less conducive to working. And, in the evening, we usually watch a show or play a game.
Other impediments to getting shit done: my laptop is small and slow; the desk chair is uncomfortable. Yadda, yadda. So many excuses, none of them really valid.
I finally decided to try disconnecting from the internet, and was able to knuckle under and write this post. This house has good, fast internet — important for various reasons. Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter, email, and voicemail are a distraction under normal circumstances, but here it’s worse. Far away from home, I am monitoring my online connections with more frequency. I want to feel connected!
If we were to move here, I could set up an office space that would work for me. None of this would be an issue, except for the distracting internet. That will be always be a distraction.
Runner up: Cost of shredded wheat
Yes, you read that right. I have recently grown extremely fond of shredded wheat with bran. Very high fiber, very tasty the way I prepare it. Here, it is prohibitively expensive. A box of Post spoon-size shredded wheat runs between $8.25 and $9.00! I love my shredded wheat, but not that much. There’s a chance that I can find something similar at one of the local tianguis – weekly street markets. I did see a vendor with what looked like bags of spoon-size shredded wheat, and the cost was a good deal cheaper. Tomorrow, I will buy some and try it.
Biggest anticipated problem that hasn’t materialized
Winner: Language barrier
As I said above, my lack of Spanish causes me anxiety and is problematic, but it’s still very possible to communicate here. Because there are a lot of expatriate Americans and Canadians living here, many local businesses have English-speaking staff. There’s an infrastructure set up to make the transition to living in Mexico easier. So in many ways, even though the language barrier is the biggest issue for me, it’s still not nearly as big as it could be.
Many of the expats are also friendly and helpful folks. They’re more than willing, in most cases, to share their knowledge and extend welcoming resources to new people. I knew this might be true, but wasn’t prepared for how much of a help and a reassurance it is. I feel that coming to this location, as opposed to someplace else in Mexico, will mean a smoother transition to eventual integration with the local culture.
Runner up: Communicating with home
I had expected to have difficulty staying in contact with my daughter and our house sitter and other folks from back home. I knew we would have email, although I’d been prepared for issues setting that up. I’d expected that Skype would work too, but wasn’t sure if I’d run into trouble getting that to work. However, none of that was a problem; connecting to the wireless router in the house was dead easy, and the internet was up and running on our laptops within minutes.
I was also able to have my Google Voice phone number forwarded to my Gmail chat client, which essentially means that I can receive telephone calls to my phone number on my computer’s microphone and speakers. I can make outgoing calls too at no charge to US phone numbers, and send text messages as well. Everything works!
I will note, too, that for the month that we’re here, I subscribed to a VPN service that can spoof our IP so that it looks like we’re accessing the internet from within the US. This is not necessary for the phone or Skype or email access, but required for watching Netflix or Hulu or HBO shows, which we’d planned to do. The cost for this service is $6 per month, and it works perfectly.
Biggest gringo mistake
Winner: Mistaking beeswax skin cream for honey
The local tianguis are full of merchants giving away samples of their wares. These are often food items like cheese or fruit slices, and so when a honey vendor spoke some words to me in Spanish and held out an small bowl containing some pasty-looking substance, I dipped a finger in and … tasted it.
Wasn’t very good. The man told me, “No, no. For your skin.” I grimaced and rubbed some on my face, but it didn’t make the red any lighter.
Several runners up:
At the local weekly tianguis, I thought that a huge pile of very white meat mixed with onions and peppers might have been ceviche (the “meat” was as white as fish). After asking what it was, a local who spoke English told us that it was chunks of pigs’ feet and skin.
Not asking for the check at a restaurant. Apparently it’s rude for the waiter to bring the check, or even ask you if you want the check, before you request it.
We’ve got another 20 days here, and I expect that we’ll learn a ton more before we’re done! We have our first visitor coming today. We’re going to make the trip into the big city by local bus! Lots of stuff happening.
A year ago, I made a decision to start tracking my food calories in an effort to lose the extra 30 pounds I’d gained in the past decade. This decision not only resulted in better health, but also a fundamental change in my awareness of food — and an improvement in my happiness, my personal relationships, and my overall quality of life.
Asleep at the Meal
For most of my life, I ate anything I wanted. I paid only a little attention to what I thought was healthy, but I was playing a lot of sports and no matter how much I ate, I never gained weight. For years I hovered effortlessly between 175 and 180 pounds.
Then at age 34 I suffered a serious injury: I tore my ACL and needed reconstructive surgery. My exercise regimen went from eight to ten hours per week of basketball and/or soccer to … nothing.
Even after surgery and physical therapy, I had enough swelling and pain from my knee that I didn’t exercise regularly for years. Every once in a while, I’d try to get re-involved in sports, but I kept reinjuring myself. After my first ultimate frisbee match, my knee swelled up like a cantaloupe … which made it also my last ultimate frisbee match.
I started to entertain the depressing possibility that I might never play sports again.
Meanwhile, I slowly gained both weight and girth. I have a sweet tooth and love to eat cookies and cakes and donuts. I have a huge weakness for cheesecake and crème brulée. By the time I turned 46, I was squeezing 215 pounds into size 38 jeans.
Carrying extra weight made many normal things harder. Extended sitting in office chairs caused me more back pain; it was additional effort to climb stairs or go hiking with the kids. Even standing became uncomfortable after a short period of time. I was more depressed, grumpier, and had a lot less energy. Plus I was self-conscious about my increasingly pear-shaped silhouette.
I had already tried dieting once. Atkins worked at first: I lost 20 pounds in three weeks or so, but it all returned when I shifted into the “maintenance” part of the diet. And as the pounds came back so did the depression. I gave up dieting and resigned myself to being overweight.
First Alarm: Hitting Snooze
Then in 2010, during a routine annual physical, my doctor informed me that my blood sugar levels indicated that I was “pre-diabetic”: I had not yet developed full-blown adult onset diabetes, but I was well above the normal healthy range. He told me I needed to lose some weight, exercise, and avoid foods with a high glycemic index.
Type II Diabetes is a serious condition, one that needs constant attention. I learned that complications can include heart disease, nerve damage, eye degeneration, kidney damage, osteoporosis, and more. I began to get a little … concerned. Continue reading “The More Bearable Lightness of Being”