Tuesday, October 27, 2020

REPOST: What I Learned from Howling Monkeys

Due to a family medical emergency… will be back to regular blogging in a couple of weeks. Thanks for reading my blogs. This week, I decided to re-post my most popular all-time blog post circa July 2012.

Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica is located on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica. It is a gem that I was most fortunate to discover in the early 80s, less than ten years after it was first established. National Geographic has called it  “the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity.”

My trip to Corcovado meant three weeks of sleeping on rocks, dancing around deadly snakes, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and listening to howling monkeys every night. By the end of each day my colleagues and I were roasted and rank. About as close to paradise as one could get.

I headed up a film crew that was part of a group of photojournalists invited by the Costa Rican government to explore the park and (hopefully) write or create television programs about it. 

The lessons began the first day of our arrival. It was a wonderful group of journalists, magazine editors,  writers and one eccentric professor from out east. This is before the Internet. Our focus was on film, photos and note taking to capture the true beauty of the country and its park. There were two women in the group who (it quickly became apparent) could hold their own with the men.  We were all young (relatively speaking) and eager to explore town and country.

San Jose is the capitol of Costa Rica and a bustling economic driver for the country. We were anxious to see what it had to offer. But first we had to tackle three weeks in the jungle.

I chose cut offs and a t-shirt instead of the more jungle attire of cargo pants, long sleeve shirt and boots. I was cooler in the jungle and didn’t look like a field hand from the Coachella Valley. I also figured ‘what the heck.’ A snake can bite through pants as easily as it can directly to skin. If I was going to get bit, long pants wouldn’t be much of a help.

Time is What You call It
We were supposed to fly into the park that next morning. We got to the small airport early and piled up our gear for three weeks of jungle camping. Then we waited. And waited. And waited.

What I didn’t understand back then was American time vs. South American time. Foolish me thought that 9:00am meant 9:00am or maybe a few minutes late. Actually in Central and South American countries 9:00am means never before the allotted hour, of course and perhaps up to: 45 minutes or longer after the appointed time. And in their world that was perfectly Ok.

My frustration must have been apparent because one of our trip leaders pulled me aside and informed me that the pilots would arrive when they felt like it. He said that I’d better get used to that attitude or else I would be the one getting frustrated for no reason at all. I took a deep breath and toned it down from A to B to C. Very mellow from then on.

Our fly-in was simple enough. We flew into the park at treetop level. Then dropped below the tree line onto a narrow strip of grass that had been cut out of the jungle. Our pilots were like cowboys. They loved scaring the heck out of Anglo tourists with their macho landings. Some planes hadn’t made it down safely in the past. Quite a sight as we taxied by.


Don’t complain about the Accommodations
Our base camp consisted of a park rancher’s station and separate bunkhouse carved out of the surrounding jungle. The bunkhouse was full so we opted to sleep on the ground nearby. In retrospect it was the right decision. After a couple of days we all adjusted to the hard ground, the howling of monkeys, sounds of strange animals nearby and the constant drone of insects all night long. It became our white noise and certainly beat the thunderous snoring rolling out of the bunkhouse each night.

Know Your Neighbors
There are three simple rules for hiking in the jungle. 

Jungle terrain is seldom flat. That only happens in Tarzan movies. It’s hilly, rugged and laced with jungle vines that can send you sprawling down a slope in nothing flat. Caution is the word.

Secondly, watch out for spider monkeys. They love to pee on you as you pass by underneath.

The third rule is also pretty simple. Watch where you step or be prepared to die.
Never step over a log or object on the ground. Never lean up against a tree. Always step on top of the log then step over to the other side. Look at the tree first before you lean against it or sit next to it.

There were many species of venomous snakes in the park. The Fer-de-Lance and Bushmaster were tops in their game. One bite…thirty minutes…hello, heaven. Even the poison dart frog could do you in. 

Supposedly a snake can hear your footfalls a long distance away and will move away from that sound. Theoretically, the snake is more scared of you than you are of it. But ‘theoretically’ doesn’t really help if a snake bites you. Then you have theoretically twenty to thirty minutes before you die. Unless you have snake serum that you can inject into the puncture wound immediately.

Our guide was a wonderful, always cheerful park ranger whose grasp of the English language always left us with the question: ‘what did he say’ or ‘did he really say that’ or ‘Ok, whatever.’


On the first day of a long hike, I casually asked our guide if he had snake bite serum with him after he described the numerous poison snakes that abounded in Corcovado. He said no, he’d left it back at base camp, a four-hour hike away. I guess when your time comes, it comes. We all walked a little more gingerly back to camp that day. And made sure he had it with him every time we went out after that.

Haste saves Toes and other Body Parts
Almost everyday, we’d have to ford some river or inlet to the sea. Always at low tide since the currents were so strong at high tide that it was very easy to get swept out to sea no matter how strong a swimmer you might be.

Then there was the matter of the Bull sharks, American crocodiles, and spectacled caiman that liked to swim up those rivers from the ocean. Our guide would watch carefully for any sign of our unwelcome visitors. Then with a wave, we’d roll up our pants (usually didn’t matter) and begin wading across the river or inlet. Looking down for any sign of a snapper usually didn’t matter. The water was brown with churning sand and silt. It was a guessing game if any one of us would be toast that day. Or the next. Often times after crossing the inlet someone would spot a fin or smudge on the water. Damn, made it again.

I’m not a Nudist
It wasn’t a fear of stepping on glass, or sitting on a steel chair or swimming across a pond full of snapping turtles, I just never pictured myself a nudist. Grant it, skin is skin is skin. And there’s a plethora of  ‘Oh, my gosh’ on the Internet if you’re interested that sort of thing. I’m not. I just never pictured myself, sans. clothes, among other people.

So when we came upon that backwater pool, in the middle of the jungle, five hours into our hike, taking off our clothes for a dip seemed surprisingly logical, rational and very appealing. I can’t remember who suggested it first. Probably the eccentric one. He always had great ideas.

The men took off their clothes first…boring. Then the women…no Brazilian trims there. One kept her panties on for a short while but then decided ‘what the heck, everything was visible anyway.’ Suddenly I felt very foolish hiding behind my sunglasses. It had quickly became apparent that the soothing coolness of the water, that magical pond in the middle of the jungle, and the lively banter going on was more interesting than body parts seen or imagined. And after a few glances, seriously, who cares?

It’s true that clothes make a woman sexy. Take those away and what you’re left with is… Ok, pass the lemonade. Maybe that’s the secret nudists have discovered; that after the clothes come off, your attention is drawn to more substantial and interesting things.  Who knew? It took a cool pond in the middle of a Costa Rican rainforest to teach me one of life’s great lessons.

Seemed Logical at the Time
The end of our gallivanting in that backwater pool came with an announcement from the eccentric one. It seemed that he had a rubber raft in his backpack and was looking for someone to float with him down the river to the sea, approximately four miles away. Strangely enough he got no takers. We just stood there, putting on our clothes, wondering if he was really serious.

Undaunted by the silent stares he got, the eccentric one tossed his clothes bag into his backpack, gave the pack to someone else and proceeded to inflate his rubber raft. Then with his hat and flip-flops on, he began floating away. We all looked in astonishment as his snow-white ass got smaller and smaller in the  distance. Then it was gone all together.

Somehow it all seemed perfectly logical at the time. I think we just collectively shook our shoulders, agreed that the eccentric one would find that a normal thing to do (floating down an unknown river in the middle of the jungle, in the nude), and wondered if or when we’d ever see him again. I know it’s stupid, dumb and illogical but I still wonder what it would have been like if I’d taken him up on his offer.

He showed up that evening, hat, torn flip-flops, and beet red ass. Then over warm beer, he regaled us with stories of the sights and sounds that greeted and then followed him down the river all the way to the sea.

Nectar of the Gods
I started a habit in Costa Rica that I’ve continued ever since. And supposedly it’s good for your health. We were God-knows how far into one of our early hikes when I saw a lemon tree in a clearing. Even though my canteen was full of tepid, warm water, a couple of squirts of lemon make all the difference in the world. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Fractured Love Affair

It was a simple idea last spring; to write a new novel (my twelfth) in lieu of workshopping my three new plays. Perhaps, I thought, by this fall the pandemic would be over and I could get back to theater work. So why not try out a new genre, a murder mystery perhaps, and be productive this summer. Little did I know that there would a host of sinister and diabolical thoughts, ideas and plots lying just beneath that murky mass called imagination inside my head.

It turns out my newest ‘novel in progress’ is set in both San Francisco and Big Sur. The storyline has given birth to some rather interesting subplots. They, in turn, have only added to the twists and turns my two main characters are experiencing before my very eyes and imagination. These ‘red herrings’ and ‘false leads’ came out of the blue as my protagonists, Brad and Laci, en-countered one another for the first time. Almost immediately, things were not as they seemed on the surface.

My original treatment, written several years ago, started out simply enough. The first chapter would begin with a company party in a tony neighborhood of San Francisco. Immediately things got a bit complicated when the party turned out to be a combination sex and drug fest. My fingers kept tapping away and I wondered where the hell my imagination was taking me.

This chance encounter at a swinger’s party was neither planned nor scripted as it began to unfold in front of my keyboard. As Brad and Laci started talking, (more like verbal fisticuffs) I frantically tried to keep up with their fast-paced dialogue. The three of us were collectively ‘off to the races’ and it has only got more complicated after that first volley of dialogue.

It’s safe to say we (that would be the main characters and I) were all rushing forward by the seat of our collective pants and short skirt. As a novice murder mystery writer, I’ve got a vague idea of what my two sinister criminal kingpins are up to. But their real motives and ultimate goals have thus far eluded me. They’re the worst kind of killers; calm and placid on the surface and diabolical beneath. They are truly amoral, evil men like the devil himself.

Laci, my heroine, is on a quest to find the truth about her father, the firm where she works, the mystery of the missing authors and how her father’s life in Big Sur holds the ultimate answer to all of her questions. But the more she probes these unanswered questions, the more secrets about her past are revealed. A reluctant yet burgeoning love affair with Brad only complicates matters worse.

Brad’s inquisitive nature as a writer has drawn him into the strange occurrences in and around the firm. But those inquiries are now threatening his life and also Laci’s. No one is safe to talk to at the firm. Lies and deception roll of staffer’s lips like raindrops in a sudden shower. No one and nothing offers up a plausible explanation that comes even close to the truth. That includes Brad and Laci and this makes their slow simmering attraction toward one another just another set of rapids thrown into this fast moving, omni-directional suspense thriller.

By the first one hundred plus pages, I came to the conclusion that my previous working title of ‘The Trades’ just didn’t do justice to the action taking place in the storyline. There was too much darkness and evil taking place so a new title was called for.

My new working title is now ‘Playground for the Devil.’ Considering some of the characters I’ve had to deal with thus far, I think this is a much more appropriate and descriptive title.

About a third of the way into unraveling this storyline, I’ve had people disappearing, bad guys knocking folks off, missing authors with their own gravestones, Big Sur facts and fiction colliding with reality along with a host of well-placed stumbles and distractions.

The most visible objective in the storyline is the search for Henry Miller’s lost writings in Big Sur if they exist at all? Both Brad and Laci believe these writings may answer many of the questions surrounding her ailing father and reveal a criminal enterprise masquerading as their publishing firm.

At this point in the storyline, the book has taken on the feel of a Dashiell Hammett movie like ‘The Maltese Falcon.’ While my protagonist isn’t another Sam Spade, private investigator, he does have the instincts of a good detective. I’d like to capture the attitude, atmosphere, darkness, and genuine sleaziness of some of my characters; good and bad - almost like an old post-war film noir set in old black and white San Francisco.

Grandpa’s fragile memory seems to be the only key to solving the mystery of the missing authors; Henry Miller’s lost writings, and a past assassin trying to kill him. But dementia is quickly closing his last remaining grasp on reality. If dementia doesn’t get to him first, then the bad guys might.

Thus far, I’m still trying to unravel in my head the mystery of Henry Miller’s lost writings, mysterious deaths in Big Sur, Laci’s fathers ‘real story’ with the artist colony in Big Sur, ‘Arrows’(money mules) working for the firm, ‘Swinger parties’ as a corporate perk and a dozen other unanswered questions about the firm. I’m confident it’ll all come together by the last chapter.

I just haven’t figured out where it is going to go or end with Laci and Brad. They are both damaged individuals, head-strong, focused and determined to reach their collective goals. Add to that chemistry a slowly dying father, a troubled daughter and long held secrets slowly revealing themselves and both Brad and Laci have mountains to climb before they reach their common goal and a resolution in the attraction they feel for one another.

Then again, isn’t that how most relationships stumble along until they come to some sort of resolution? This is no different. I just wish I knew how it was going to end with Brad and Laci and if I can put a smile on my face as I write ‘The End.’

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Digital Death | Who killed the magazine?

Magazines are just one of the many casualties of the digital era. Movies, music, and record-keeping are also just some of the hundreds, if not thousands, of past processes that have been permanently altered, adjusted, changed and eliminated because of the influx of bytes and bits.

That’s a shame because magazines provide a colorful, timely, and historical perspective of a time in our lives or the past lives of others. It’s a collection of community, social, cultural and sexual mores that form the context within which people lived out their lives. It can be the perfect time capsule for a community researcher as well.

Colliers was one of the first general publications, mass market magazines to record the lives of upper crust Americans around the turn of the century. It wasn’t for your average American but it did a great job of chronicling the lives of the wealthy and famous.

Weekly and monthly magazines like Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, and  McCall’s all tabulated and chronicled life in America and the world after World War Two. They were at their peak when they documented the surging economy and changing social mores of the early fifties.

As a teenager, I loved to amble into our corner drug store and work my way to the back of the store where I would read Life magazine for its take on World War Two, the Fifties, and life styles way out of my reach. Over the years, I’ve collected the occasional magazine about desert life but it wasn’t until I started going to Palm Springs on a regular visit that I started to collect old ‘Palm Springs Life’ magazines. It turns out that PSL is a perfect example of a printed time capsule for that desert community.

Cities come and go in phases. Many factors contribute to the sometimes slight, sometimes seismic shifts in demographics, economics, and social upheavals. It’s all part of the on-going collective changes any enclave of people gathered together go through.

For decades, Palm Springs Life magazine has been a chronicler of these changes in the city and throughout the Coachella Valley. Since its inception as the ‘Villager Magazine’ beginning back in the late forties, PSL has reflected the current economic and social climate of the city and its inhabitants.

Back in the late forties and early fifties, ’The Villager’ covered social events centered on the small enclave of moneyed, talented or well-connected visitors or snow birds from the coast and out East. Many of these gala events had a ‘western’ theme. Old money from the East had discovered the benefits of the dry desert air, the shelter from inquisitive East Coast tabloids, relatively cheap real estate and the company of like-minded business, entertainment and industrial citizens of the world.

By the late 70s and throughout the 80s, the magazine had morphed from ‘the Villager’ to ‘Palm Springs Life.’ With its new moniker and colored printing press, the magazine reflected on the golden period of the late forties and fifties when Hollywood discovered Palm Springs big time.

In 2008, just before the economic collapse, the magazine was a thick, brash, bold siren call of hedonistic pleasures of the desert town.

There was a gossip column on the latest desert scandals, photo shoots of the latest desert fashions, ads about new real estate developments (many of which never got developed) and the ever present reflection back on the ‘golden years’ of the Rat Pack, Chi Chi restaurant and other landmarks of the community.

A renewed interest in mid-century modernism design spurred the magazine in a whole new direction of modern architecture. PSL became a big promoter of ‘Modernism Week’ and its plethora of neighborhood home tours, lectures, art and artifact sales and other aspects of modernism design, function and history.

Today’s magazine has been scaled back to reflect a tightening of the economy in the age of COVID-19. Real estate seems to have survived and in fact, thrived in the age of the pandemic, but seasonal home rentals and restaurant sales are way down. Despite these changes in the local economy, seasonal migration of snowbirds and Canadians and temporary altered lifestyle, the magazine still manages to capture the true beauty of the desert.

Like any big city magazine, Palm Springs Life reflects life in the desert in its present shape and form. Future changes will probably work their way into the magazine as they have in the past, a still relevant reminder of a unique and ever-curious lifestyle for us desert dwellers.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Coastal Cruise

There is something strangely romantic about the open road; vast horizons that go on forever, blurs in the distance that slowly take shape as you get closer. That kinship with travel has been captured in dozens of classics like ‘Bound for Glory,’ ‘On the Road’ and many more tales from the road.

I wrote about my last road trip in ‘The Great Escape, April 21st, 2020. It was a three day, two thousand mile exercise in exhaustion, mind-numbing scenery mixed in with a sense of adventure on the open road. Fortunately, we had a land cruiser that made the miles go by easier but it was still not of my liking.

Train travel turns out to be another experience all together and one I find more to my liking. While the pandemic has curtailed my rail travels for now, I still have some very fond memories of past travels on those silver rails.

Closer to home, California has done a great job of laying track up and down the West Coast. One can travel from San Diego to their northern borders with Oregon with few layovers and reconnections. Riding in business class instead of steerage can make for a generally relaxing and interesting way to travel.

Along its southern border with Mexico and as far north as the community of Oceanside, they have a commuter rail line called the Coaster. It’s a nice quick trip between those ocean communities and San Diego.

Conversely, Minnesota is limited in its transportation options. We have a good bus system and the light rail is fast (OK, semi-fast) and efficient way to get around (parts of) town. But it’s not like California’s Amtrak service up and down the coast or the localized Coaster service. It’s a different way to travel and I love it.

There was an interesting article in the New York Times back a couple of years ago that spoke directly to me. It was entitled: “Why the West Coast is suddenly beating the East Coast on Transportation” by Ms. Camille Fink.

“It is an incredibly exciting time to be in urban transportation,” the New York transportation commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, told a breakfast gathering of powerful New Yorkers, pointing to California’s progress. *

The Los Angeles area, the ultimate car-centric region with its sprawling freeways, approved a sweeping $120 billion plan to build new train routes and upgrade its buses. Seattle has won accolades for its transit system, where 93 percent of riders report being happy with service – a feat that seems unimaginable in New York, where subway riders regularly simmer with rage on stalled trains.

“It’s a tale of two systems,” said Robert Puentes, the president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan research center in Washington. “These new ones are growing and haven’t started to experience the pains of rehabilitation.” *

While I’m hardly an urban kind of guy and big cities are more my nemesis than a friend, I did find the article scored a direct bullseye on my interest level in transportation. It’s not just my love of the bicycles or walkabouts that garnered that attention. Rail travel has always been on my short list of imaginative ways to get about.

Sharon and I have done the Amtrak commuter run from D.C. to New York several times.

The views along the way are always a wonderful snapshot of east coast living at its most normal.

It’s a great way to visit the ‘Big Apple’ and leave the driving to someone else.    

We’ve ridden the rails from San Diego to Santa Barbara and hopped the Coaster for a day trip to San Diego.

The San Diego Coaster is part of a much larger Amtrak network of rails that weave their way up and down the West Coast.

The Coaster’s normal run goes from Oceanside, just south of Camp Pendleton, down to San Diego. The ride from Oceanside to San Diego costs a little over six dollars round trip and takes about an hour. One glance at traffic on highway 5 morning or evening and its benefits can’t be denied.

The run up the coast from San Diego to Santa Barbara does the same reveal on the opposite side of the country. The Coaster is an amalgamation of the two with commuters, long distance rail riders, suburban Moms on a quick jaunt into town and a wide assortment of humanity in-between. I was just there to look, listen and sneak a picture or two.

Los Angeles plans to build 100 new miles of rail – essentially doubling the Metro system, whose first rail line opened in 1990. There are now six lines and 93 stations. “I made sure we included funding for long-term maintenance,” said Dow Constantine, the executive of King County, which is home to Seattle, “so you don’t get the situation we’re seeing in New York and Washington where the systems have been neglected and it’s expensive and inconvenient to rebuild.” *

There’s even talk of a rail line extending from downtown Los Angeles to the Coachella Valley sometime in the future. Having spent some time on highway 10 going into L.A., I can only hope it will come sooner rather than later. Until then, Sharon and I want to try more train travels up and down the California coast perhaps as far as Vancouver, Canada. It’s always a fun way to check out the sights along the way and let someone else do the driving.

Works for me.

**Excerpts taken from the New York Times article “Why the West Coast is suddenly beating the East Coast on Transportation” by Ms. Camille Fink, January lst, 2019.