Friday, May 31, 2013

Colm Toibin interview and short story

Photo from The Guardian

Colm Toibin's "Summer of '38" appeared in the March issue of The New Yorker. This short and simple tale of ordinary events and one woman's memories portrays some long-term consequences of the Spanish Civil War. After making a decision to leave the past undisturbed, the protagonist declines a unique lunch invitation and arranges a lunch of her own.

Last month, Toibin was interviewed by CBC's Eleanor Wachtel of Writers and Company at Blue Metropolis in Montreal, where he was awarded the International Literary Grand Prix.

His latest work, The Testament of Mary, featured Toibin's view of what it was like for Mary to be the mother of Jesus. The first theatrical run starred Fiona Shaw and closed on May 5. Toibin is close to the Irish theatre, and it was at a theatrical event that the idea was suggested. Would he do a play? He would, and did. In the interview, he talked about how much of Mary's appeal as someone to pray to lay in her silence, her acquiescence.

Hearing Toibin talk about his play with Eleanor Wachtel made me think about another book I read recently. In 2011 Michelle Roberts published a novel called The Secret Gospel of Mary Magdalene. It seems to me an interesting thread connects the two.

Toibin's discussion of how he envisioned Mary reminded me of a passage from Roberts's book. In listing her identification with more ancient goddesses and their epithets, Mary describes herself as "she who is ignored...exiled."

Interesting parallel. I love Toibin's writing and look forward to reading this latest opus. If the opportunity arises, I'll see the play on stage. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Seasonal waterfall and grazing bears

This waterfall in the Callaghan Valley has a great variation in seasonal flow. In summer, our guide Jason told us, it is a mere trickle. At this season it is still fed by plenty of melting snow. This was a bonus view shown us by our bear guides.

James and Jason, of  Whistler Discovery Tours, drove us up into bear country to watch from the safety of a land rover while those hungry animals, fresh out of hibernation, grazed on young clover by the roadside. As the snow melts and the spring progresses, the bears will follow the new growth up to the alpine elevations.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Whistler Creek and the big old softie in summer

Whistler Creek and 99, the Sea to Sky Hgwy from Creekside Village
Creekside Gondola with Whistler Mountain in the background
The big ole softie still has some snow up top

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Cable car cosy at Creekside Gondola

I've seen them on teapots and golf clubs. But cable car cosies?

Also, why is one car clothed and the other naked?

 Picture from Joanne at Seasonal Hearth and Home
Photo from craftstylish

Monday, May 27, 2013

Bears wake and graze near Whistler

From the safety of the Whistler Discovery Tours jeep, I was fortunate to be witness to the early feeding of black bears along a remote mountain road.

My fellow bear-watchers were two couples: one from California and the other from Australia.

Jason, our photographer guide, told us how fortunate we were to get such a good look at these impressive animals. In spring, the grass is still short, so they are plainly visible.

Each individual animal we saw stayed close to our vehicle for at least 15 minutes. All three were black bears, though two were brown in colour. They seemed unconcerned by the presence of the jeep or the sounds of clicking cameras from its windows.

It was wonderful to watch them at close range. Their movements were interesting and unexpected; more than once we saw someone standing on three legs, the fourth paw in the air with its teddy-bear pads plainly visible.

Just recently out of their dens, they were grazing on young clover. Jason told us another favourite spring food is skunk cabbage -- a plant with a rank smell I recall well from my northern BC childhood.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Black Tusk memories

Photo taken from the Callaghan Valley at dusk
As a young woman, I hiked up to camp in Black Tusk Meadows. At the time there was a lot I didn't know about the mountain. For one thing, it was the original choice as a ski hill for what later became Whistler Blackcomb.

Also, I lacked a clear understanding of how the tusk itself was formed from the hardened magma of an extinct volcano. This magma never escaped the chamber. The surrounding rock, far softer, eroded away over a long period of time.

However, on that trip, I learned other things of importance when we left too late and had to traverse the last part of the trail to Taylor Campsite in the dark.

That nocturnal journey up the forested switchbacks was a wonderful experience. When visual perception is limited by darkness, other senses compensate. That night it was sound and the quality of the air that kept me on the right path. 

That unique trip to the alpine meadows in darkness afforded me a mysterious glimpse of things lit, but not by light. The memory has stayed with me for forty years.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Life as a series of emergencies

Dominant features of the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston are this huge defibrillator sign and the constant dunning of announcements warning travelers not to trust others with their bag. Anything to raise the traveler's adrenalin levels.

While I waited for my connecting flight, I saw two emergency vehicles drive up to the plane, lights flashing. The reason? A passenger felt slightly ill. I wonder if all the noise made her feel better, or worse.

This atmosphere is not just in international airports, and the paranoid propaganda isn't prevalent only in our neighbouring nation. Here in formerly laid-back Vancouver, for instance, there is a sign advertising CPR on the floor of Cambie Station.

Marshall McLuhan was right about the nature and power of the media, though few understood his prophetic words, "The medium is the message." Though most of us would deny the idea, we are the products of the media.

Media mavens, themselves products of the information age, use the media to shape our behaviour, and our very thoughts. The influence is pervasive and insidious, and largely unconscious.

The worldwide belief system, as biologist Rupert Sheldrake points out in a recent book, is now scientific materialism (or promissory materialism, as Karl Popper ironically christened this unproven view.) This set of beliefs has far- ranging consequences.

Ironically, while the media beat the drum of the social danger comes from the old religions, Islam in particular, they appear unconscious of the real danger comes from our widespread and unquestioned belief in science -- that is, the quasi-religious version of science that the media and society currently inculcate.

The major tenet of the new quasi-religious belief in science is this:
       The purpose and meaning of life is to get more money and acquire more stuff. This entails a whole host of corollaries. For one thing, the old idea of the spiritual quest has been replaced by the quest for money. For another, social life, including marriage, is seen as a shopping trip. If the selected spouse proves over time not to have been a bargain, go shopping for another. Fulfillment and happiness, the rights of all, are to be found through getting more stuff. Expensive weddings and temporary spouses, as well as "friends" on facebook illustrate the trend.

As a corollary to this, we are taught that socially, politically and environmentally, our world is fraught with dangers we must fight against; ergo, we need to be very vigilant, very suspicious, very afraid. Thus TV and the newspapers provide only two main messages: the current thing to fear is x; first, be very afraid of x, and second, buy this solution to overcome your current fear. Fear is a powerful sales pitch.

The misguided but engineered idea that life is a series of emergencies, and that the appropriate response to all of them is to pursue security through material goods and goals is quite simply wrong. It only replicates the fear that keeps it going, and thus, the whole daft system.

Invisible, pervasive, and astonishingly influential, these programs that run silently behind  our conscious awareness are the viruses that have infected our minds. Many of our contemporary problems follow from allowing the media and society to tell us what to think -- and what to be afraid of. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Science Delusion, by Rupert Sheldrake

Cover photo from Rupert Sheldrake online
US title Science Set Free.

"The sciences," says Sheldrake, "are now wholly owned subsidiaries" of materialism, a "default world view" held by most educated people worldwide. To rejuvenate science, we need break out of this dogma.

Sheldrake's statement to this effect was considered so radical that his talk of the subject was banned from TED. Along with a review of the controversy, it has been reposted on Collective Evolution.

I've been thinking about the social enslavement to a belief in "science" since I was in my twenties, and I was thrilled when I discovered Sheldrake -- one of a very few people who talks about this. He states that scientific knowledge has been elevated to a quasi-religious status in our society, even as the scientific method of constant questioning is lost among a welter of orthodoxies.

Based on some of the currently ingrained orthodoxies of "science," Angelina Jolie decided that undergoing a double mastectomy would protect her from breast cancer. Such muddle-headed decision making would not be so prevalent and unquestioned, if people were more willing to seriously entertain the urgent scientific questioned by Sheldrake while contemporary scientists ignore them.

For instance, Sheldrake asks whether nature is actually mechanical, and whether its laws are really fixed. It is from assuming that both of these are true, that orthodox scientists have reached that conclusion that Jolie has an 87% chance of getting breast cancer because she carries a certain gene. Her unquestioning belief in the same scientific dogmas has led to her radical decision to opt for preventive surgery.

Another intriguing and essential question raised by Sheldrake is whether matter is unconscious, as science has so far assumed without ever undertaking to prove this claim.

Other questions raised include whether minds are confined to brains, and something many scientists have shied away from, whether psychic phenomena are strictly illusory.

The most important question "empowered patient" Jolie failed to consider before she scheduled her painful and drastic surgery was this: "Is mechanistic medicine the only kind that really works?" She is not alone in assuming the answer is yes. Mostly, contemporary society backs her up without question.

The Science Delusion is a refreshing and thought-provoking book. For that very reason, many take exception to the questions raised by this leading thinker. After all, orthodoxies are comfortable, and as thinkers have observd, new knowledge is usually denied and reviled before being considered and tested.

Not surprisingly, TED ran into some trouble after banning a talk in which Sheldrake raised his ten radical questions. Then Deepak Chopra and others wrote an open letter to the Huffington Post, and Chris Anderson of TED replied with his own open letter to which Chopra then replied.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

License to busk?

Metro photo

Would-be busker Michael Bellwood auditions for busking Translink 

The campaign to control the city's buskers began in earnest before the Olympics came to Vancouver in 2010. Now the misguided bureaucrats are at it again. (At least I hope that's the explanation. Other possibilities are too scary.)

It seems they've decided against free speech on Granville Island, even though it's been a hotbed of weird and wonderful street entertainments ever since its inception way back as a shopping and entertainment destination.

Scripts for buskers must now be pre-approved. Buskers are not to interact with their audiences. In other  words, the show is over.

According to Denise Ryan in the Vancouver Sun, one of the tragic side effects of this latest round of busker busting is Keegan Chen's unexplained loss of the license to busk. Living with Aspergers is a challenge, and Chen is devastated. He's been happily and successfully busking for years.

Whoever is behind these new rules should have their heads soaked -- twice, to match the doubling of the busking license fee.

Wait -- I have a better idea. They should be forced to study some history, just so they have an idea about the importance of free speech and the dangers of curtailing it. But then, who would vet the history scripts?

Maybe we should go to the top. How about Prime Minister Stephen Harper, ex-aide Nigel Wright or Senator Mike Duffy? No, bad idea. They're too busy working on their own creative scripts. Just kidding.

If it hasn't already, this debacle should make the CBC.

The field of action may seem small, but the issue is serious.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Costa Rica drops away beneath the airplane wing

The long blue coastline of Costa Rica is visible beneath the airplane wing and the wisps of cirrus and cumulus cloud.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Monday, May 20, 2013

Anteater crossing

Giant anteater from National Geographic

In Playa Guiones, the taxi picked us up at 1:00 AM for Linda's early morning flight. It was a strange trip at night over the dry bumpy road.

We chatted with Carlos, who was used to night driving, then lapsed into quiet, and dozed to Latin music, Linda in the front, I in the back.

Knowing there was virtually no traffic on the road, I was surprised to feel the car stop in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere.

"An animal..." But our driver drew a blank on the English name; he was Costa Rican.

"Armadillo?" I asked.

We peered into the dark road where a striped animal the size of a small dog was slowly crossing in front of us through what seemed to be a shallow ditch that went right across the road.

"No, oso hormiguero. It eats..." Again he was stuck for the English.

Linda had the answer. "Ants! It's an anteater."

I laughed and pointed. "It's using a kind of crosswalk -- an anteater crossing."

I pondered how the French word for bear -- ours, and the one for ants -- hormiga -- helped me unlock the Spanish name I'd just heard Carlos say. Literal translation -- ant-eating bear. While we waited for the creature to make its way across, he told us he had to be careful with night driving. There are lots of animals on the road. Dogs, cattle....and anteaters of course.

A few miles later, I was still thinking about the word. Then I realized I'd recognized it because it sounded like the French word for ant, fourmi.

And for a moment I was back at my daughter's elementary school concert, as she marched and sang enthusiastically with her classmates, "Nous sommes les fourmis...nous sommes tres petits, mais ensemble nous sommes formidables." We are small but together, we're a force to be reckoned with. Or something like that.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Reflections on gazing down at Volcan Arenal

I took this photo from the air shortly after we left Liberia Airport.

Located on Lake Arenal, this is a stratovolcano that erupted regularly from 1968 to 2010 and is now in a resting phase.

Volcan Arenal is the youngest of several volcanoes in Costa Rica. The vent is clearly visible, as are the marks of past ash flows. Perhaps the puff of smoke on the side is from an active vent.

I'd hoped to take a trip to one of the volcanoes while I was in Costa Rica -- but they were too far. The closest I got was to taste some Cerro Fuego (fire hill) coffee. Then as I left, I was lucky to see this amazing sight from the plane.

Volcanoes are part of the earth's continuous process of re-making itself. All over the world, people grow crops near them, or even on their flanks, because the soil is so rich.

Since the massive eruption that buried the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the volcanic soil at the foot of Mount Vesuvius has been cultivated in grape vines, tomatoes, apricots and other crops.

The famous kiwi fruit of New Zealand are grown largely on volcanic soil, which also enriches the pastures that support the country's huge dairy industry.

Volcanic activity may help fish runs as well. In 2010, after many years of declining numbers of Fraser river salmon, CBC reported the largest salmon return since 1913. Sidney Ocean Institute scientist Tim Parsons attributed the huge run to the unexpected eruption of the volcano Kasatochi in the Aleutian Islands two years earlier. The iron-rich ash that spread over the sea nourished a huge bloom of phytoplankton which moved up the food chain and fed the fish.

Isn't our planet amazing?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Appealing clouds, Anthony Blunt and Alexander McCall Smith

Book cover image from Indiebound

I just finished the latest Isabel Dalhousie book by Alexander McCall Smith. The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds is full of his trademark charm. I so enjoy and relate to this author's fiction, yet I cut the pleasure short: I raced through it in half a day.

In each book, the inquisitive philosopher Isabel Dalhousie faces a moral or philosophical conundrum. In this volume, she encounters art theft -- well, actually art kidnapping might be a better term.

Isabel is shocked to learn that when a really valuable painting is stolen, certain shady lawyers can act as middlemen for the criminals. In exchange for the payment of a ransom, they arrange for the painting to be returned.

Between editing the Journal of Applied Philosophy and caring for her little son Charlie, our dear protagonist is kept busy; even so, she can be relied on to give in to the temptation to interfere.

Just as predictable is her devoted young husband Jamie, who has struggled to come to terms with Isabel's inability to refuse help when appealed to. Jamie has still not arrived at a state of complete equanimity about the fact that her wish to help causes his exasperating wife to court danger.

This latest Isabel Dalhousie novel has something special: a cameo appearance by a real historical character. She learns from the owner of the stolen work that Anthony Blunt, the ex-Cambridge spy who was also an art expert, was once called upon to confirm that the creator of a certain painting was actually created by Nicolas Poussin.

In the midst of the angst about the stolen art, Grace, Isabel's housekeeper of longstanding, gets in a snit and gives notice. The reason? When Isabel finds out that Grace has taken it upon herself to teach Charlie maths from a book, she mildly questions the wisdom of this for a child his age and states that she and Jamie must be consulted about such things.

Fortunately, Isabel's dilemmas are resolved in the end, which is one of the reasons it is so charming to read about her.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Fireflies and unfamiliar constellations

Southern Cross image from University of Chicago library
My recent trip to Costa Rica was the first time I'd seen fireflies. Returning to our little beach cabin at night (after 6:15 pm), we would see myriads of them among the palm fronds and other vegetation that leaned across the winding path to our door. I was astounded by their brilliance.

The stars were brilliant too, and we craned our necks to look at them. But in the garden there were too many lights nearby, and too many fronds blocking our view.

Only one thing to be done. On our last evening in Playa Guiones, Linda and I decided to wait for dark on the beach. We'd lie on the soft sand and gaze up at the unfamiliar constellations.

Though neither of us was knowledgeable about stars, we noticed how different the sky appeared. After most of a lifetime of in a certain latitude, the watcher knows when the stars do not appear in quite the same configurations, even if the original skyviews remain vague in the mind.

The stars at 10 degrees north do not look the same as they do here at 49 degrees. Hoped in vain to see the Southern Cross, which is theoretically visible from CR, very low on the horizon and only at certain seasons and odd times of night. Guess I'll have to go to Australia after all.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Lacy hammocks at Blue Spirit

This comfy hammock, beautifully trimmed with an edge of crochet, was part of a Blue Spirit 'hammock village.'

Located conveniently close to the tents and cabins, this and several other lacy hammocks looked inviting.

In the heat of the day, there is nothing like the lull of a hammock as it swings gently in the mottled shade.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Blue Spirit pool

At Blue Spirit near Nosara, the swimming pool, seen here from the hotel lobby above, is filled with salt water and surrounded by lush vegetation. It is located part way down the flagstone path that leads down to the nature cabins and tents that provide alternative accommodation for those who want to be right in the midst of the lush nature that graces this gorgeous property.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

My favourite corner of Blue Spirit

I will always remember this delightful secluded corner behind the woven twig wall at Blue Spirit.

And I was not the only fan. In the course of playing hide and seek with his little friend, young Gabriel delved under there at my feet one morning, and I promised to say I hadn't seen him.

That table was a wonderful quiet place to read, write, and enjoy the sea view as seen below.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Costa Rica -- a small country with big ideas

Photo: Tamarindo zip line canopy tours

Costa Rica is the only nation in the Western hemisphere with no standing army. Wildlife hunting is prohibited, and the nation boasts more preserved forest per capita than any other country.

Monkey bridges have been created to protect endangered howler monkeys who risk electrocution when they cross power lines.

Recycling and beach restoration initiatives for coastal ecosystems have been in place since 2008. 

Higher literacy rates than the US. More microchips exported than coffee and bananas.

Costa Rica has loads of experience for tourists to enjoy -- from crocodile watching to swimming in a collapsed volcano to surfing. Not to mention the spectacular tropical gardens, the cloud forest with its rare species and the chance for zipline tours through the forest canopies.

Not to mention the chances for fishing -- fresh water or marlin -- or attending a local rodeo. Horseback riding, the butterfly tour. The list goes on.

After a day of exploring, you can relax and sample ceviche, delicious passion fruit, or a microbrewery beer with a wealth of local cheeses. No wonder more people from el norte arrive in Costa Rica than the number of Costa Ricans going north.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Costa Rica -- a blue zone of longevity

Map from ezilon

The Nicoya peninsula of northern Costa Rica is a blue zone -- a place with more centenarians than elsewhere. People here enjoy their lives and age in a healthy way.

Long-lived people have certain habits in common. They work hard and drink plenty of water. The "rich coast" is a country where local water is not only safe to drink, but chock a block with the minerals the body needs.

Costa Ricans also eat fresh healthy meals that diminish in size as bedtime approaches. Gallo Pinto, the national dish, is made of rice and beans, and eaten for breakfast. Local fruits like papayas, pineapple and passion fruit are tasty and health-giving.

Right: Gallo pinto with egg and fried plantain

Blue zone inhabitants enjoy strong family ties. Their willing devotion to community through a plan de vida that keeps them strong and vibrant. Costa Ricans retire early and rise at dawn. They enjoy the feeling of sunshine on their skin, and benefit from the Vitamin D it provides.

Pura vida! This Costa Rican salutation says it all. The English translation is pure life.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Drinking from coconuts

Picture bjj news

At the entrance to the beach, a large old station wagon was parked in the shade, its open hatch back full of coconuts.

Some were au naturel, with the brown hairs still on, and others were shaven ready to drink. (The one in the picture is smooth-skinned.)

As I approached, the man looked at me, grabbed a nice big coconut and gave it a judicious tap with a small headed tack hammer. No words were exchanged but communication took place.

In went the straw and in a trice he'd handed over the coconut and I'd given him the coin -- 500 colones, I believe it was.

Delish! Refreshing and satisfying. Small bits of fresh coconut meat came through the straw with the juice.

Turns out coconut water is not only healthy, it's also very fashionable. Gwyneth Paltrow, Rihanna and Madonna and others use it to stay svelte and to rehydrate after exercise.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bromeliads in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is home to a couple of hundred types of these odd plants. Turu Ba Ri Park alone boasts 180 varieties. I photographed this lush flower in Playa Guiones. Before it opened, the whole bloom looked like the tip of the bud. Bromeliads are plants of the tropical jungle. The Bromeliad Society International reports more than 3000 species. The great majority of these plants are found in the tropical and subtropical zones of Central and South America. A few grow in the southern US and Africa.
Bromeliads vary in appearance and characteristics. All have scaly moisture-preserving leaves called trichomes, but the plants themselves may be grassy, fibrous or mossy. Some grow in soil, some on rocks, and some are epiphytes. Since these grow on trees or cactus plants and gets moisture and nutrients from the air, they are known as "air plants."

The pineapple, probably the best-known bromeliad, is the only one used for food. Photo Above: Pineapple plant from Tropical Florida Gardens.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Red squirrel in a guanacaste tree

Can you see him? He's standing on the bottom branch in the picture, tail fluffed out behind.

Unfortunately, the view of him is partly concealed by a drooping leafy twig.

Guanacaste, the so-called Ear Tree, is the national tree of Costa Rica and is also the name of a mountain range and a province in the northwestern part of the country.

John McLaughlin got a better photo of this animal, seen below, but to see the tail, you need to look at my picture, left.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Lizards feast on leaves

Costa Rica lizard image from

This fellow resembles some lizards I saw at Playa Guiones. They were about 18 inches long and had grey stripes across their backs.

One was in a small tree, hanging heavily from a thin branch by a long claw and using the fronds of a young palm for extra support while he reached ever further out the branch to grab the succulent leaves and devour them.

Another passed by my foot, slightly brushing it, while I sat in a wicker chair by the pool, reading. He paused as I looked down, swung his unlovely head back and forth as if to sniff the wind and waddled off, clumsy but fast, tail swinging back and forth to counterbalance the swaying head.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Termite nests near Blue Spirit

Termite nest by the beach path

There were several termite nests near Blue Spirit. One large one was visible from El Silencio, the yoga studio in its natural forest setting partway down the hill to the beach.

This one was just beside the path to the beach, and I saw several others as well.

The picture below, from placebored, shows a closer view of a tree hosting a huge termite nest.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Beach crab and strong currents

Beach crab, Playa Guiones

A small crab marched between my feet as I sat on a log watching the surfers go out on Playa Guiones.

This little guy looks harmless enough, but this is the open Pacific and the rip  currents can be dangerous -- muy peligrosas, as the sign below warns:

After reading the warning, we decided that wading, rather than swimming, would be the way to go. Shuffling our feet, of course, to avoid meeting any stingrays who might happen by. They aren't aggressive, but will definitely bite if stepped on.

The sand is fine, soft and firm against the feet, but when a wave breaks, it erodes the sand from beneath you, causing you to sway and teeter. Fun with your eyes closed. We didn't see any but surfers are advised to beware of sharks. We did see a whale though; it flipped its tail just off the shore.

Friday, May 3, 2013

It's illegal to take seashells from Costa Rica

Costa Rica is an environmentally conscious country. It is illegal to remove seashells from the beaches.

When the eyes tire of watching the surfers go out, there are the small shellfish to feast the senses on.

A walk through the shallow surf along the beach means seeing myriads of pretty shells.

Among those strewn on the sands of Nosara, most are small and delicate. Pink ones and conical scrolls, as seen in these photos, are common.

We were told to shuffle our feet when walking through the surf -- this helps prevent stingrays from striking. They're shy creatures at heart, so if you can avoid startling them, they are very unlikely to attack. They don't come in close to the beach often, but they do like shallow water, so we were warned of the possibility.

What I'd like to know, though, is who lives in these holes? There were many of these, and I never saw a living creature go in or out.