When impermanence stings

The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things and the ignorance thereof. Transient things do not only include the physical objects that surround us, but also ideas, and -in a greater sense- all objects of our perception. Ignorance is the lack of understanding of how our mind is attached to impermanent things. The reasons for suffering are desire, passion, ardour, pursuit of wealth and prestige, striving for fame and popularity, or in short: craving and clinging. Because the objects of our attachment are transient, their loss is inevitable, thus suffering will necessarily follow.

An interpretation of the second of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths

Oh, I can read this business about how noble the truth of impermanence is and, intellectually, I can conceive of how suffering could be decreased by developing the mental discipline of detachment. But sometimes, when something happens that drives home just how impermanent some things are, it just plain stings.

This past week I received two unbidden reminders:

First, my beloved 6-year old Apple Powerbook fell from a height of five feet onto a VERY hard tile floor. Miraculously, the hard drive somehow survived long enough for me to back all of my data up onto an external drive, but the CD/DVD drive was destroyed, the wi-fi no longer works, and the lid does not stay closed.

Of course, computers are a lesson in impermanence without even breaking. Just about everyone has had the experience of buying a computer only to see the same computer advertised a few months later with better components for the same price or less. And yet we foolishly wait to buy until some upgrade is available, some new processor or operating system, thinking we can actually stave off the inevitable obsolescence.

Now, keep in mind that I just returned from Costa Rica, where I left behind a significant amount of money. The timing leaves me with two painful options: 1.) wait to replace the laptop, 2.) debt financing.

Either way, ouch.

Second, 12 years ago, my wife and I tore the roof off of our two bedroom, one bath Craftsman bungalow and built a second story on top. When we did that, on the east side of the house, we needed to board up where a window had been, since the window would be blocked by the new stairway. And, when we patched up the exterior hole, we didn’t flash the Tyvek at least 6 inches under the existing siding on all sides as is recommended, and while we did caulk the seams where the old cedar clapboard siding met the new siding in the patch, over time the caulk started to deteriorate, leaving cracks where water has been getting in (we live in a subtropical rainforest zone for god’s sake!).

As we were ripping off the siding in search of water damage, I thought of how un-Buddhist home ownership seems, how we invest in paint and caulk and flashing and gutters as if we could ever permanently protect these silly man-made structures from the forces of nature.

Hmmm. Impermanence. Computers. Houses. My guess is that the Buddha wouldn’t have anything to do with either of them.

Costa Rica Chronicles: Vol. IX

Cloud Forests: An Embarrassment of Riches

    Cloud forests, a type of rainforest, occur on high mountains in the tropics, generally between 2,000 and 3,500 meters, and experience very different environmental conditions. As one ascends in elevation, the hot steamy lowlands are left behind and several distinct vegetation zones occur…Cloud forests are so named because they are often shrouded in mist and fog. The high moisture level and cool year-round temperatures foster plant communities rich in mosses, ferns, and epiphytes…

So, there are around a half dozen cloud forest reserves in Costa Rica, and if you ask half a dozen people which would be the best cloud forest to visit if you only had time to visit one you’d get half a dozen different answers.

Three of these are near the village of Santa Elena, and my favorite piece of advice on the cloud forests came from one of the staff at our hostel. He said, “Here’s the thing, ever since the Lonely Planet guide said that the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve gets 20,000 visitors annually, while the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve sees 200,000 visitors per year, the pendulum has swung and now folks are regularly reporting that Santa Elena is too crowded.”

Based on this advice, in addition to advice to arrive at the reserve early in the morning because they only allow so many people in at a time, we chose to visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

Now, tourists’ have a reputation that precedes them, that of having very high, emotion-filled expectations – born of spending most of their days in nature-deficient lifestyles – of seeing every form of wildlife they’ve read about in all the books on the cloud forests. As a result, folks who have been there, particularly those whose jobs involve advising tourists about their visits, make it a top priority of pulling out a map of the area and running through an obviously well-worn shpiel to cover their asses out of sincere concern for our feelings and in order to lessen the blow of disappointment:

“The cloud forest reserves are so vast and the portions visited by tourists on the only trails tourists are allowed to tread on are so relatively small, that most of the wildlife has learned that they have plenty of room and don’t need to get anywhere near those loud-mouthed, binocular-laden bipeds. So, in short, if you are a binocular-laden biped, expect to see lots of flora and very little fauna.”

You’d think that with all the snark in this post that I’m building up to complaining about how much of a waste of time Monteverde was, but the truth is that the preemptive disappointment prevention we received from our friend at the hostel worked. Our expectations were sufficiently lowered, and our visit there turned out to be quite lovely.

The forest, in many ways, resembles the subtropical rainforest we have right here in the Pacific Northwest: lush, green, dense with ferns and moss and lichen, and that ever-present smell in the air of damp soil. From there, however, the forest is entirely different. From the bromeliads and the heliconia to the ficus and mango trees, the flora is clearly tropical, and the star of the whole show was…

…the Resplendent Quetzal. I’d guess that 95% of the people who visit Monteverde would name the quetzal as being on the top of their wish list in terms of wildlife sightings. The birds are described as being elusive, and visitors who see them tend use the term lucky a lot.

Given that, I guess we were supremely lucky! Our first 2 hours in the park were with an interpretive guide, Rolando, a caffeine-fueled font of information on everything we saw in the forest. About an hour into our hike, Rolando was scanning the canopy and got very quiet as he set up his monocular on its tripod. Waving us over, we gazed through the lens and saw our first quetzal, stunningly colorful, sitting on a high branch.

Later, after we returned to the trailhead and were preparing to leave, we sensed a hushed commotion from some other visitors, and, making our way over to a small crowd, found that they’d discovered a mated pair of quetzals, sitting about 15 feet away on lower branches.

So, you might ask, were there clouds? Well, as a matter of fact, thanks to the clouds we were unable to see anything at a lookout situated at the Continental Divide. It was actually quite eerie, standing there at a steep drop-off, where the rainforest just stopped, and before and below us was nothing but vapor, blowing through in a breeze that felt like you could be swept off and float away.

I could go on and on, mention the hanging bridge and the gigantic tarantula that crossed our path as we hiked, but there is so much more to get to and this post alone has taken me almost a week to write because of my crazy schedule.

Up Next: Oh yeah, we’re near the equator.

Costa Rica Chronicles: Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III, Vol. IV, Vol. V, Vol. VI, Vol. VII, Vol. VIII, Vol. IX, Vol. X

It’s Strummerific!

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re listening to a song and it just hits you on a very deep level, you can feel the song internally, it has penetrated your being, every note and every beat seems to resonate in harmony with exactly where you are at in that moment.


Well, I sympathize, because it’s an amazing feeling, a feeling that I immediately want to share with others, so that they might have a chance to feel it too.

This is one of the many reasons why it’s great to be a blogger.

Anyway, today I was walking across campus, enjoying some wonderfully surprising springtime weather, a song came on my iPod by one of my faves, Mr. Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, and something about the song, something not quite explainable, so perfectly fit my mood and the pace of my footsteps and the comfort I felt in the sunshine…

…it was one of those moments and I just have to share it with you!

So, close your eyes, visualize a sunny day, a campus of students and staff bustling about, feel a little bounce in your step because you’ve started jogging recently and you like how it is making you feel, and listen to this:

The annual surprise of springtime

It gets me just about every year, no matter how long I live here.

In the summer, we get gloriously warm and long days, daylight lasting past 9:00pm, offering 4+ hours of outdoor playtime after the work day is over.

However, inevitably, slowly but surely, the days grow shorter and colder. Before you know it, it’s dark when I wake up to go to work and dark before I leave work to return home.

Oh, there’s respite in the form of the holidays and skiing and, for the past few years, mid-winter trips to sunny places like Hawaii, Jamaica, and Costa Rica, but winter, all in all, can be trying.

And then, all of a sudden, in February, little green shoots pop up out of the ground, snowdrops and crocus and the beginnings of daffodils, and trees sprout buds and blossoms, and even though the poor weather might last a few more months, we have a good chance of getting stretches like what we see here to the right, and it always takes me by surprise, always seems premature, however welcome it may be.

Last I checked, spring doesn’t start until March 20th. So, enjoy these bonus spring days while you can, my fellow Bellinghamsters!

Costa Rica Chronicles: Vol. VIII

Filling in the Gaps
As promised, this is the first in a series of posts that will recap the major highlights of the trip, starting from the point, Day 6, where I had to cease posting due to lack of wi-fi and/or general busyness.

Days 6-8: Santa Elena
Ended our stay at the Arenal Volcano Observatory, where we saw lava flow and our first monkeys (Howlers), and traveled to Santa Elena via the common van-boat-van charter. (See, there’s this enormous Lake Arenal, created when a valley was purposefully flooded after a village there was evacuated due to volcano threats. To this day, when the level of the lake is low in the summer, you can reportedly see the abandoned houses and other buildings beneath the surface of the water.) Anyway, a van took us from the observatory to the lake, we boarded a boat that took us across the lake, and then we got in another van that took us on a long, winding dirt road in poor condition through the mountains; mountains spotted with a variety of agriculture: cattle, misc. livestock, banana, coffee.

Santa Elena is a tremendously cute village that serves as the base for exploration of two nearby cloud forest reserves. (A separate post will follow on our trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest.) Three short streets form a triangle marking the center of the village, streets lined with markets, restaurants, tour operators, souvenir shops, budget hotels and our hostel: Pension Santa Elena. If you changed the foliage and the language on the signs, it seems this village could be in just about any country with rural hillside, and I thought that if the coffee and banana farms were vineyards it would feel just like we were in France or Italy.

Pension Santa Elena is the quintessential hostel. While I our previous hostel boasted that it was the only 5-star hostel in Costa Rica, Pension Santa Elena was wonderfully messy and all about communal living. As you pull up in front of the building, you are greeted by travelers hanging out on benches and in hammocks on the front porch, you walk in and there’s a cafe-esque seating area, where more folks are sitting around reading, writing, and drinking coffee or beer, and then you reach the front desk, where the most enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and friendly young people answer every question imaginable, over and over and over again, from guests who need help getting where they want to go and doing activities they want to do.

Behind the desk is the communal kitchen, where we prepared our breakfasts and lunches, while chatting with fellow travelers from around the world.

Finally, beyond the kitchen, a hallway leads to a courtyard and across the courtyard are the private rooms. Ours is a very comfy, unusually large, by hostel standards, room with two double beds and a private bath with a great stone shower. Sweet!

Up Next: Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Costa Rica Chronicles: Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III, Vol. IV, Vol. V, Vol. VI, Vol. VII, Vol. VIII, Vol. IX, Vol. X

Luge madness

There were warning signs that were ignored. Several lugers had already wiped out and were either injured or badly shaken up.

The track was purposefully built to be the fastest ever in a grotesque pursuit of world records, records that have so little real value compared to the life of this young Georgian.

There is something not right about a human being moving 90mph on a tiny sled on ice wearing just a helmet.

And, shouldn’t we all be questioning a sport wherein the playing field is constantly being adapted to produce faster speeds? How do we now consider the times set by lugers just a few years ago, much less 10, 20, 30 years ago? At what point can we attribute the setting of a record to the actual luger him/herself? Luge takes incredible skill and athleticism, for sure, but gravity and the construction of the track are things the competitors have absolutely no control over.

This is a shameful waste of life.


Video Fridays: Happy Fun Ball

In an attempt to get back to normal blogging around here, I thought I’d revive the Video Fridays series with this old favorite from SNL.

Remember: Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


Costa Rica Chronicles: Vol. VII

Home…sort of.
It’s the same thing every time I return from a vacation. I’m home…sort of. Physically I’m here, and I’ve been able to function and focus on work, but thoughts of where I’ve been, thoughts of rain forests and beaches, of monkeys and toucans, of pineapple and coconut, are hovering around in my head, occasionally rushing to the forefront as I’m asked by co-workers about the trip.

As I mentioned, I plan to write a series of posts reflecting on what I wasn’t able to post about while I was there, but today it’s all about what it’s like to be home.

It’s colder, it’s more modern (I can flush toilet paper down the toilet again), I’ve been on the computer more in one day than I was during my entire 17-day trip, I ate in an all-you-can-eat campus dining hall rather than at some roadside soda, and I’ve not seen one palm tree.

I find myself in a pretty good mood, basking in lovely memories of a great adventure, but there is a twinge of melancholy in the emotional mix. I remember the last night in Montezuma, the last swim in the ocean, a sunset dip, floating up and down in the swells, feeling so deeply relaxed, so connected with the country and its people, and there’s a little achy longing to be back there again.

For now, however, I’ll work on being in the present moment. I’m here in Bellingham, and no one seems to have screwed it up while we were gone.

Costa Rica Chronicles: Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III, Vol. IV, Vol. V, Vol. VI, Vol. VII, Vol. VIII, Vol. IX, Vol. X

Costa Rica: adios

We’re back where we started our adventure: Hotel Arilapa. It’s our last day for all intents and purposes – we wake at 5:00 AM to catch a 7:30 flight home. Very sad.

After a hectic morning of travel – an hour-long shuttle to an hour-long ferry to a two-hour shuttle – we’re lounging in hammocks, lulled by the sounds of the river, the birds, and a gentle breeze rustling the leaves of the mango trees. A perfect way to wind down and wind up the trip.

I’ve been keeping a handwritten journal of the trip, and I’m planning on doing a series of posts when I get back, to fill in the gaps, bits and pieces I missed between the posts I did manage early in the trip, and, of course, details from the blackout period, from about Day 7 until today, when I was either too busy or there was no wi-fi.

Until we’re home, adios amigos y amigas.

Costa Rica: still here

So much for my plans to post regularly.

Only have a moment, but it’s been amazing. Fresh fruit, beaches, swimming, surfing, and lots and lots of monkeys.