Tree Poem Week– #1: El Mango

If you’re not familiar with the trees of the tropical dry forest, let me introduce you to some of my friends.

Company of Mangos

I cannot live one more day without
the company of mango trees.
How am I supposed to breathe
without their green certainty
exhaled into the world?
There is no other way
to survive.
Who else will hear my prayers and
whisper them to heaven?
Their roots pushing down
show me where to
put my feet.
Their parakeets remind me when to
stop sleeping.

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50 Different Words for Children

Who would like to join me in a toast to funny-shaped families: non-traditional, hard-to-explain combinations that don’t fit into a cookie-cutter no matter how you turn them?

Cheers!

. . . . .

The boys have grown into men and they roar up to my house on motorcycles. They peel of their helmets and pick me up off the ground when they hug me. When they were little and I was their dad’s wife, they didn’t call me mamá, but now they do even though I’ve been gone for much longer than I was there. You can divorce an adult, but the kids are another story.

I re-married and have a new set of step-kids who, unfortunately, live far away. My ex’s kids love my husband and he loves them right back, so when we get together it’s a very odd combination of laughter and pizza and reminiscing about things that not all of us remember. But it’s alright. You can open your heart to the people who want to love you, or you can close it.  Heads or tails.

But the language breaks down–all the ones I know do.  Here’s a question: What do I call my ex-husband’s daughter? If I call her my step-daughter, that confuses her with my husband’s daughter. And my husband has a daughter. He has a son, too, so what do I call the young men on the motorcycles? My ex-step-sons? That sounds terrible. Their dad is my ex—they are not any type of “ex” to me. Our relationship is very much in the present.

So here’s another one. What if my ex-step-daughter has a baby? Because she did. What do I call the baby? My ex-step granddaughter?? I’m laughing now. I’m a little annoyed with Webster’s lack of imagination. We don’t have a word for this. We need one.

I need one.

You know what I don’t like about the options my language gives me for naming children who aren’t mine? I don’t like identifying people who I consider family primarily by who they are not. Like calling the infant I hold in my arms my “ex-step-granddaughter.” That language removes her from me twice before giving her to me. It’s backwards. (And I would never call her that anyway, of course!)

The guy married to my sister is my brother-in-law. The woman married to my other sister is my sister-in-law. Those names give the relationship first and take it down a peg second. I like that order better. My sister’s wife is first my sister—and second, not-really-my-sister.

I guess the supposition is that when you divorce someone, the relationship is broken and the family is broken, so therefore the language identifies the break before it reflects anything else. I imagine that most times it is that way. I just wish we had a whole different word for it, is all, if you aren’t estranged. Like a language that has 50 different words for snow. I wish we had 50 different words for children. We have 3: kids, step-kids and grandkids.

Fail.

I especially dislike the vibe of the prefix “step” in front of family relationships. I accept it, but I don’t care for it. Tell the truth: what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “step-mother?” A wicked woman who won’t let pretty girls go to parties at best, and feeds them poisoned apples at worst. Please. Being a stepmother is wretchedly difficult, and no matter what you do, it will be the wrong thing in somebody’s opinion almost all the time.

I wish we had a word for my husband’s son that doesn’t start out by telling you that he doesn’t really belong to me. I wish I had a word for my grandbaby’s mama that doesn’t showcase what we are not.

Of course you are thinking, “Just say ‘daughter’ and ‘granddaughter’.” And I do, and I will.  I just feel the need to put my finger on a very personal place where language and life do not match up at all.

When I was college age, I used to say that I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to have children, but that I thought I would make an excellent grandmother.  I didn’t expect to pull that off, but look at me now.

And, dear English Language, please evolve.

 

italia

Feed the Good Wolf

I feel the need to weigh in on the political situation in US of A. I do not believe that I have anything new to say, but when I think that I will therefore not say anything, that feels wrong.  So this, today, is my statement.  Followed by a story that gives me a way forward.

I am not happy with our new president.  I was not happy with him as a candidate, and I am not happy with him now.  I don’t like what he says or has done regarding issues of immigration.  I don’t like his arrogant, self-absorbed demeanor.  I read things that disturb me regarding how he is placing white supremacists in powerful positions around him.  I am told that hate crimes and hateful actions are on the rise.

I know good people who like him, who brush off what I find intolerable with a shrug of the shoulders and say this is the liberal media, not the truth.  All I can say is, I hope you are right.

I still don’t like him.  I feel betrayed by a country that I thought I understood a little, but clearly I don’t.

In the face of discrimination, hate and fear, I feel compelled to wage love.  Wage kindness.  Wield it like a sword.  No one, no matter how hateful, can take away your ability to be compassionate.  Do it expansively.

Here is a small Native American story for us to keep close to our hearts, to give us a way forward, personally.  It doesn’t speak directly to politics, but to individuals–to me.

A grandfather tells a young child that inside each person, there is a good wolf and a bad wolf.  The bad wolf is hate, anger, and arrogance.  The good wolf is love, compassion, and kindness.  The good wolf and the bad wolf are locked in a fight.

The child thinks about the wolves and, as children do, asks, “Which one wins?”

The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”

Feed the good wolf.

 

 

Acronyms Meet to Discuss Crocodiles in Tamarindo

These are my gleanings from the meeting held at the Barceló with ADI (Association de Desarollo Integral), SINAC (Sistema Nacional de Areas de Conservacion), CATURGUA (Camera de Turismo Guanacasteca), and MINAE (Ministerio de Ambiente y Energia). The purpose of the meeting was to discuss The Crocodile/s . I mostly went to listen, because that’s always a good start, and I got to ask a few questions. What follows is what I took away from the meeting. This is not intended to be a complete summary—I’m sure ADI will provide that. It is a subjective gleaning and contains editorial commentary and a concerted effort to minimize sarcasm.

 

MINAE says:

–They carefully observed the crocodiles in the estuary after the July attack. They removed the very big one that exhibited dangerous/unusual behavior, explaining that there was only one exhibiting this behavior and it is certainly the one guilty of the attack. It was taken to Puerto Humo. (I looked it up. It’s where the Tempisque River is born. ) They are still monitoring crocodiles in the Playa Grande/Tamarindo/Langosta area and analyzing their behavior. In the five kilometer marine stretch that they monitor, it is normal for there to be 12-14 crocodiles moving around at any given time.

Laura The Crocodile Expert says:

–It is not true that crocodiles were “seeded” here.

–Salt water crocs are completely natural in the estuaries and oceans of Guanacaste. She says they were depleted in the 40-60s, but that now their populations are becoming “healthy” again.

–It is not true that there is an overpopulation of crocodiles in Tamarindo. Overpopulation occurs when there are so many of a species that there is not enough food for them, and they begin to kill each other. Since crocodiles are not doing this, there is no overpopulation. Lucky for us, crocodiles are of a species that control their own population—as in, crocodiles never have overpopulation because they kill each other first and solve their own problem.

–Swimming in the ocean is normal crocodile behavior. Eating dogs is normal crocodile behavior. (I wanted to ask if eating human preschoolers would be considered normal crocodile behavior, but I was afraid of the answer.)

–Attacking/eating (presumably adult) people is not normal behavior for this species of crocodile. Nile crocodiles, she explained, eat people, but not this kind. She made a big deal about how crocodiles do not hunt people, do not want to eat people and are normally afraid of people.

–The (only) problem in Tamarindo is that crocodiles have been, for so long, fed by humans.

The SINAC guy talked too, but he didn’t say anything that stuck with me. He did take a moment to praise the fact that we have such a wonderful government system that allows us all to participate in decisions, as demonstrated by this meeting.

The meeting, by and large, revolved around how dreadful it is that we have created this dangerous situation for ourselves by feeding the crocodiles. (Which I acknowledge. Our Tamarindo crocs have twisted minds and there’s no one to blame except us.)

But ok. So we’ve corrupted the crocodile population. While we right our wrong, what’s the plan for our safety?
Signs. Signs warning people not to feed crocodiles, and not to swim in the ocean/estuary. (How about a sign asking crocodiles not to eat the people? I didn’t say that, but I thought it.) And crocodile “monitoring.”

That’s when I raised my hand. First, I said why I was there—because I happened to be a first-hand witness of the trauma caused by the attack, and I DO NOT EVER want to see anything like that again. And I don’t want you to, either. The room became very quiet. Then I asked the guy from MINAE: How are you monitoring the crocodiles? And what does a crocodile have to do in order for you to identify it as “malportado? “

They said they are monitoring the crocodiles by observing them. I was imagining chips and tracking devices, but no. That’s way too Animal Planet. “Monitoring” means that MINAE has people watching over the crocodiles. (I haven’t seen these monitors. Maybe you have?) Later in the meeting MINAE stated that they have 7 people in charge of “monitoring” 26,000 hectares. Or maybe I misunderstood that? I hope so. And a naughty crocodile, one who could get itself on the bad-boy list for possible deportation to Puerto Humo, is one that shows abnormal interest in people. Swimming near people. Looking at people. Not humbly slinking away.

MINAE wants us to report to them—that’s the most useful thing I learned at the meeting. If you see a human feeding a crocodile, make a denuncia. If you see a crocodile showing interest in humans, make a denuncia! (I’m not sure it’s called a denuncia if it’s against an animal, but you get what I mean.) MINAE says that for all of the videos on social media and for all the fussing and fuming there is about people feeding crocs, there has not ever been ONE SINGLE denuncia filed against anyone with MINAE. Which is silly. A few denuncias, a long time ago, would have enabled them to act before things turned out the way they did. Or anyway, that’s the story in retrospect. Point being: if you see any funny stuff between people and crocodiles—regardless of which species is the perpetrator—call MINAE. They’ll be right over after they finish observing the other 25,000 hectares they’re in charge of.

Other people asked questions, but I don’t really remember what they were. (I don’t advertise this a lot, but I’m actually quite selfish.) We spent A LOT of time reviewing the evils of people who feed crocs and the wonderful power of signs. Signs in red, to be specific. Red was praised. I’m not kidding. (And all sarcasm aside, red is better than the brown-and-yellow ones originally posted behind the high tide mark.)

I asked my other question to Laura The Crocodile Expert. Because I wanted someone at that table of “experts” to say it to my face. I said, “You’re the crocodile expert. You know these animals better than anyone else in this room. So tell me. Now that the big bad crocodile is gone, but knowing that there are others nearby who were certainly fed by humans, would you , if you were a surfer like I am, put your board in the water and surf in the mouth of the estuary?” Everybody laughed nervously. And Laura said, “No.” Not in the mouth of the estuary, she wouldn’t. No matter how good the waves were. That’s like chilling out on their buffet table.

People surf in the river mouth every day, and so far all of us have been safe. I didn’t say that, because she gave me her honest opinion, which is what I asked for. And she confirmed that my persisting fears are not an irrational.

Now, looking back on it, I feel a small (but futile) twinge of victory. I didn’t mean to set a trap, but if you think about it, I guess the panel of experts admitted that even though they’ve “done something” about the crocodile “problem” in Tamarindo, it still isn’t “safe.” Babies, dogs and surfers, beware: MINAE is working to protect us within the bounds of the law, but the crocodile expert wouldn’t go for a swim.

I took this photo in April 2016, of a crocodile exhibiting "abnormal" behavior--chilling there staring me down. If it ever happens again, I will call MINAE.

I took this photo in April 2016, of a crocodile exhibiting “abnormal” behavior–chilling there staring me down.  If it ever happens again, I will call MINAE.

Sudden Handcuffs

A short story about a day at work in Washington.

 

Camila shows up without an appointment. The receptionist calls my desk in the social work office and informs me that she is waiting. Something personal is going on, I intuit. If she came for help with welfare forms or letters, she would not have waited in the lobby through my lunch. She is asking for someone she trusts.

I call her from the lobby into an empty office where we can talk in private. Baby Diego wiggles happily on her lap when I smile at him.

“Necesito que me ayude con mi hermano,” she says.

“Ok?” I ask. “En qué sentido?”

“Necesito que me ayude a escribir una carta.”

Now she drops her eyes and straightens baby Diego’s little hat. At her full adult height she is four feet tall like her mother and grandmother, and wears clothes she buys in the children’s section at Walmart. All of them, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands and a growing band of cousins have come from a remote mountain village in Mexico. They live together as they did before they stole across the border, in a decrepit three bedroom trailer heated by a wood stove in the living room. I have been there. I sat with her every month on the sagging bed in the living room, in that intimate chaos, discussing baby Diego’s growth from the time he was nothing but a little lump.

“Está en la cárcel,” she tells me.

“Qué pasó?” I ask.

He’s a good man, she tells me, and the family is very sad. She wants to write a letter telling the judge that he should be allowed to come home. He is not a bad person. He is a hard worker and he doesn’t drink. Will I help her?

“Sí,” I tell her. But why is he in jail?

“Lo metieron en la cárcel porque su esposa es muy joven. Ella tiene trece años. Y lo metieron en la cárcel.”

“Lo metieron en la cárcel porque la esposa tiene trece años?”

“Sí.”

Ah, I say. Yes. In this country it is illegal for a man to have a thirteen year old wife.

“Ya sé,” she tells me, “Pero para nosotros, es normal.”

“Yo lo sé,” I say, and prop my head on my hand, looking at her.

I hate this.

“Como está la esposa?” I ask, trying to understand. If he is in la cárcel, something happened. Something.

“Ella está muy triste,” Camila says. “Ella quiere que lo dejen ir.”

“Ella lo ama?”

“Oh, sí. Mucho,” she earnestly nods.

“Él la trata bien?”

“Sí, la trata bien. Es un hombre muy bueno. No toma licor, nunca.”

“Cuántos años tiene él?”

“El tiene 21.”

Well, yes. Indeed.

“Tienen niños?” I ask. I realize I don’t need this much information to write the letter she wants, but I can’t help it. Throughout her pregnancy with baby Diego, we developed a sort of lopsided friendship, and I care about things for which I can offer no remedy.

“No, she says, “Pero está embarazada.”

Quietly, a sigh deflates me.

I can see it perfectly: the thirteen year old girl who speaks no English and very little Spanish goes to the doctor with her mother, or mother-in-law, where it is confirmed that she is pregnant. They do not show their delight or any other emotion in front of the large white strangers. Their round faces are stoic, expressionless, and the nurse sends them directly to speak with a social worker. They do not know what a social worker is, but they know to cooperate with large white strangers.

They answer the interpreter’s questions in broken Spanish.

How old are you?

Are you in school?

Where is the father of your baby?

How old is he?

Where does he live?

The large white strangers note his name, his age, that his address is the same. They do not ask her if she is married, if her baby’s father is her husband, betrothed to her when he was fifteen and she was a child of seven. They read flickers of fear on the face of the older woman and they misunderstand.

“El es muy bueno, y queremos que lo dejen ir,” Camila says. The sadness in her is bottomless.

 

I write the letter to the judge, stating that Eduardo is a good man, that his family misses him very much and that they need him. That the pregnant child is his wife and that she needs him. That he is a hard worker who doesn’t drink liquor or consume drugs. That the judge may please consider that he is not a criminal and let him go.
I realize, of course, that by my country’s law, he is.

Camila hugs me gratefully and leaves carrying the letter in one hand, clutching delighted baby Diego to her small hip with the other.

I go back into the little room where we can talk in private and sit there by myself, immobilized by a sorrow that seems to expand in all directions. I say a prayer for rain in the high plains of Mexico, that corn may germinate and grow, that the goats may have milk enough for everyone’s babies, that people may find hope in their homelands far away from large strangers with our clipboards, prying questionnaires and sudden handcuffs.

Bill Ulmer’s Passport Problems and His Miraculous Journey

I was in the San Jose, Costa Rica airport last week accompanying a friend who took someone to catch a flight. Being in that building gave me the heebie-jeebies, which I don’t get very often. Thinking about Bill Ulmer standing in that line, going through that security check point, knowing the truth about Barbara Struncova, having gotten away with whatever he did, having lied to everyone in the presence of whom he opened his mouth, and running away. It gives me the bad kind of shivers.

On Wednesday, July 6, Bill is scheduled to receive his sentence for Identity Theft and Possession of an Identity Document with Intent to Defraud. The stolen/fraudulent identity document in question is a passport belonging to his brother Wayne Ulmer, Jr.

Today, let’s talk about passports. Bill had trouble with his—trouble, as in he didn’t have one. It’s lucky he liked to grumble about it while having a few drinks with his and Barbara’s friends. If he hadn’t, no one would have known to contact the US authorities when Barbara Struncova disappeared, her credit card charged several thousand dollars at the surf shop where Bill worked, and he turned up at his parents’ house in North Carolina the next day. In that order. Without having mentioned to anyone that he was leaving.

PASSPORT PROBLEMS

So what happened to Bill Ulmer’s passport? I gather that he’s done some creative story-telling to folks who ask. These are the main points of the story I’ve been able to pull it together: Bill arrived in Costa Rica with his own passport in the spring of 2008, intending to start a tour company. At some time near the end of the year, he was deported back to the USA. My understanding is that he was deported for “working” illegally. I’ve got to hand it to him—that is one crappy stroke of bad luck. Lots of foreigners work illegally in Costa Rica because there is no way to earn a dollar legally unless you are Costa Rican, have a resident visa, or obtain some type of practically-unheard-of work permit. It is my understanding that the authorities observed Bill receiving money from tourists for a surf trip, mistook it for a drug deal, stepped in, and discovered he was breaking a different law. I don’t know if that’s how it happened, but I do know that if the Costa Rican immigration officials catch you working illegally, you get deported. Period.

(O THE IRONIES of being deported for working illegally, only to walk away Scott free from a trail of blood that the authorities saw with their own eyes…)

Being deported does not mean you lose your passport. The country that deported you might not want you back right away, but you’re still allowed to go other places. But Bill wasn’t. Why? Because there are amounts of child support that a person can owe which disqualify him from being eligible to leave the country. And Bill owed that much. I don’t know exactly how much he owed at that time, but it was well over the magic number. That’s all I’m going to say about child support because I don’t want to discuss Bill’s children/family. None of this is their fault, and yet they can never disconnect from it.

The next thing we know is that Bill Ulmer re-entered Costa Rica in March 2009 as Wayne Ulmer. Whether Bill stole Wayne’s passport, or Bill “stole” Wayne’s passport, I cannot know. I’ve heard that during the 3 months between the time he was deported and the time he returned, Bill lived with Wayne. I have two sisters, both of whom own passports, both of whom I’ve lived with at one time or another. If I wanted to steal either of their passports, I wouldn’t have the foggiest notion of where to look. Maybe Bill spent three months stealthily searching? Maybe he convinced Wayne to show or lend it to him? I don’t know. If the story happened any other way, we have two felons instead of one.

Wayne immediately noticed that his passport was stolen. Or he immediately “noticed” that it was “stolen.” And what do you do if your passport is stolen? You report it to the authorities. If you give your passport to someone and plan to say it was stolen, what do you do? You report it to the authorities! You have to, or you could be charged with a felony as well. Wayne also phoned some friends, which is how we can be sure that he discovered it missing right away. My understanding is that Wayne reported Bill to the authorities for having stolen his passport right away. I can’t say anything for sure, but that is a story that came to me. The more I think on it, the less sense it makes.

Bill, then, could never go back to the United States. I remember that. I remember him never, ever wanting to go back, rolling his eyes and grumbling about how he had some trouble there. He needed fly under the radar in Costa Rica, not get in trouble with the cops, not get caught by immigration, not get stopped for speeding, stay out of bar fights.

THE QUESTION

What I want to know, what I cannot fathom, and what leaves even my imagination standing speechless is this question: HOW IN THE DEVIL DO YOU FLY FROM COSTA RICA TO THE USA ON A PASSPORT THAT HAS BEEN REPORTED AS STOLEN AND NOT GET NAILED BY TSA?

How?

That is nothing short of a miracle.

Was the passport really reported stolen? Or was it only reported after Bill came back?

Am I missing something? They practically make you walk through security checkpoints in your underwear, and Bill got both OUT of Costa Rica and INTO the USA on a passport that was reported as STOLEN? My God, my head is exploding. I hope there is a piece of this puzzle that is still missing, because BOY does it ever not fit together well.

CLOSELY WATCHING

On Wednesday, the judge will rule on how much more time Bill needs to spend in jail for traveling with Wayne’s passport. There are no charges regarding the disappearance of Barbara Struncova, but the judge is well aware of the close connection to a missing person case in Costa Rica. I am sure she is right over our shoulders, closely watching.

B and B hand over his mouth

Wondering In Costa Rica: How Close Am I To Barbara Struncova?

Now that I’m back in Tamarindo Costa Rica, every day I bump into someone I haven’t seen for years. Part of me still half-expects to bump into Bill Ulmer and Barbara Struncova—they were here when I left. I should find her walking along with the dog, or spot Bill on his long board in the sunset lineup, or walk up behind them in the grocery line at Automercado. Of course it’s not going to happen.

I think about Barbara all the time—and Bill, too. How did everything go so horribly wrong for both of them? Good God. In the back of my mind, I am actively wondering, no matter what else I am doing, where she is. As I sit here at my kitchen table with my computer, how close am I to Barbara right now?

People ask me, “Where do you think he put her?” I say, “I don’t know.” I have some ideas, but they are all shots in the dark. I’m up for a drive to a few places I have in mind, though, if anyone who has a car and a few hours wants to go. Yes, that is an  invitation.  I’m not expecting miracles, but I never rule them out.

“Where would I go if I had a body to get rid of?” I ask myself. But I’m not the right person to ask. I put myself in a borrowed car with expired plates and a body in an enormous board bag. I give myself about 20 hours. Would I go north? South? East?? Would I have to get a shovel? Or something to weight the bag like cement blocks or a lot of rocks or something? Would I be heading toward an estuary? A forest? A bridge? A dump? I don’t know. Would I put the board and the body in the same place? I should have studied criminal psychology.

She can’t be far. Ten minutes? Thirty? Could he have driven for a whole hour?

Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province is a maze of back roads through fields, forests and small towns. Brackish ocean inlets called estuaries punctuate the coast line like long, squirrely commas, surrounded by dense, marshy lowlands. Estuaries, on one hand, are populated with crocodiles—which could be an attractive idea for a terrified expat with a body in the back of an illegal vehicle. But estuaries lead directly to the ocean where unmentionable things could wash up on the beach in the morning or 10 years later. So, I don’t know. But I think about it. If you needed to dig a hole big enough for the board bag and the body—that would be one enormous hole! But it could be done if you were ridiculously strong and had all night. And were desperate.  In early December, the ground is not completely dried out yet. It’s been suggested to me that maybe Bill burned the bag. I think that a burning board bag in the night, no matter where it is, would run the risk of drawing way too much unwanted attention, so I personally don’t vote for that. Which means nothing.

If a perfectly normal human being can disappear in to thin air the way Barbara did, then what is impossible?

I’d like to look for her, but there is no place to start. I ask her to tell me in a dream where she is, but my only dreams are happy dreams about meeting again, even though Barbara and I are both aware, in the dream, that she is not alive. I think that she isn’t asking me to find her bones; she is asking me to remember her. She is asking me to help you to remember her. She is asking all of us that Bill not hurt anyone else.

Bill Ulmer is, today, being held in the custody of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina. He was arrested on May 28, 2015 and is presently awaiting sentencing for passport fraud. At this rate, he may have served a significant portion of his sentence by the time he receives it. And any woman he approaches in the future, if she has enough sense to Google her suitors, will discover Barbara’s disappearance. Which may, when it comes to keeping potential victims out of harm’s way, be just as meaningful as any macabre discovery you or I could make on a solitary hillside or in the sand.

Like our Facebook page called “Where is Barbara Struncova?”

Barbara's face