Friday, December 26, 2008

John, a Light on My Path

In the workshops and presentation that Nancy & I give based on our book Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully: A Journey with Cancer and Beyond, we often ask participants: What makes a good death?

The answers include no pain, time to say good-bye, finishing one’s business, having those you love by your side, being free of anxiety, and being at peace.

These elements can be achieved when one is dying of disease and has the time to prepare consciously for the end, as Diane Manahan did. Her extraordinarily good death is one reason her story is so inspiring.

But what if a person does not have that time?

Last month an old friend from high school, John Osnes, stepped off the curb in Los Angeles one night, and within minutes he was lying on the pavement, having been beaten up and then run over in a road rage incident.

How could his death ever be considered a good death? That is was quick? That he didn’t linger in pain? Those aren’t very satisfactory answers. I don’t know that there are any.

A sudden death may be hardest on the loved ones, such as John’s beloved sister, Kris. How could this have happened? How can one go on when everything is changed?

Quickly come all the arrangements, the phone calls, the obituary, the finances, the notifications, the reality within the unreal situation. In a way, the tasks help loved ones get through the first few days and through the shock, but not through the grief. That will last a long, long time.

I am grateful to John Osnes for a friendship of long ago that was more important to me than I realized at the time. In our small rural Midwestern town, he was a gay teenager. He bravely wore his hair longer than any other guy in Madelia, sang beautifully, played the piano brilliantly, but was harassed by his schoolmates. I was a lesbian teenager, in love for the first time-- with his sister Kris. For a couple of years, John and I formed an unspoken bond in our isolation. Once, over pizza in the nearby “city” of Mankato, we confided our sexuality and our heartaches openly to each other.

Thank you, John, for who you were . . . and for being a light on my path.
P.S. For more information about John Osnes, visit

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Yucatan Travels--Campeche

In Campeche, the capital of the state of Campeche, Mexico, we stayed two nights in the Francis Drake, a slightly worn but very comfortable hotel within the walls of the old city.

In 1999 UNESCO named Campeche a world heritage site and so its gorgeous Colonial buildings are preserved. No two buildings in a row can be the same color, and the city provides the beautiful multi-hued pastel paint from UNESCO funds. The buildings are one or two-stories with no electrical lines swaying overhead. It is delightful to be in the middle of a city and have such an unobstructed view of the sky.

We thought that there must be a financial/business center elsewhere, but no, the banks and government buildings are right there on either side the stone walls that ring the old city. A couple of blocks to the west a lovely seaside walk (El Malacon) stretches for miles along the Gulf of Mexico.

Campeche is a relaxed and friendly city known for its fabulous seafood. We had plenty of it, too! Thanks to the recommendations of Zora O'Neill's Rough Guide to the Yucatan and Kristine at the Flycatcher Inn (see previous blog entry), we visited a row of small, brightly colored restaurants perched on the shore, where fishermen bring their fresh catch. The food is so good that we ate there twice and packed their ceviche (fresh raw fish "cooked" in lime juice with onions, tomatoes, and cilantro) in the cooler for our 8-hour drive back across the peninsula from the Gulf of Mexico to the Caribbean Sea.

Campeche deserves a lot more time. Nature preserves abound in the area, and many Mayan ruins are within easy driving distance. Someday we’ll be back.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

NanBec's Yucatan Travels--The Ruta Puuc

Last week Nancy and I spent a few days exploring the Yucatan Peninsula. In Santa Elena, a Mayan village south of Merida poised on the Ruta Puuc (Route of the Hills), we stayed at the sweet little Flycatcher Inn, which has its own trail through several acres of forest. It made for a pleasant hike and good birdwatching after five hours in the car. Although the town is normally quiet, we heard firecrackers throughout the night as townspeople warmed up for the annual celebration of the Virgin of Guadeloupe.

The next morning we drove ten minutes to see the spectacular Mayan ruins of Uxmal, which fell into decline around 1000 CE. The site is impressive with its huge buildings and the wide expanses of well-tended lawns and shade trees. The view from the top of the palace is spectacular with ruins poking out of the surrounding forest.
One building that especially caught my attention was the Magician’s Temple. Its base is oval rather than the usual rectangle, as shown in the picture above.

After Uxmal we took the Ruta Puuc to four other Mayan ruins, all of them amazing in their own way and quiet as few tourists visit them. Puuc architecture is a special Mayan style. One of its distinguishing characteristics is the rows of segmented columns that resemble bamboo poles.
At Kabah, Nancy and I ate a picnic lunch in the shadow of a tenth century arch that marked the beginning of the stone road that led to Uxmal 30 kilometers away. We gazed down the raised causeway that ended abruptly at the forest edge, where archeologists had stopped their work. What an impressive entrance to a city—it must have been like entering Oz. [The arch pictured is the one at nearby Labna.]

At all of these sites, stone carvings of Chac, the rain god, are in abundance. Since rain is the only source of water in this area, it is not surprising to find this god in such prominence. The Mayans built large cisterns to collect and hold rain water to see them through the dry season.

At the eastern end of the Ruta Puuc are the caves of Loltun. On the hour-long tour we saw huge caverns with many stalagmites and stalactites. The cave, used for millennia, has the outline of prehistoric hands similar to those in caves in France. Mammoth bones have been found in the Loltun cave, as well as human bones.

That night we were tired and missed the big celebration in front of the Santa Elena church (built at the top of what look like steps of a Mayan temple). Plenty of firecrackers went off during the night, though, so we didn’t entirely miss the party. The next morning as we walked around town we saw Mexican teenagers sleeping outside the public buildings, kids who had run or bicycled for days from other villages, carrying a torch to fulfill their pledge to the Virgin.

We stopped at a traditional Mayan home with palm fronds for a roof. A man came from the side of the house and told us that he teaches Mayan. Every year groups of students arrive from the States to learn the language which is spoken throughout the area and is still the first language of the town residents, Spanish being the second. We learned from our B&B host that Martha Steward filmed Don Feliciano and his wife last month as they taught her about Mayan cooking with traditional herbs from their garden.

Monday, November 17, 2008

My Wife, My Mistress

Leave it to California to spice up our romantic life.

On September 3, 2008, Nancy and I were married in the rotunda of the City Hall of San Francisco. The occasion was thrilling, solemn, and very emotional. After 14 years together, our commitment was suddenly being celebrated by everyone from the county clerk who issued our marriage license and the deputy commissioner who pronounced us "spouses for life," to family and friends who gave cards, gifts, tributes, and hugs. We floated on a wave of happiness for two-months and one day.

Then, on November 4, California voters passed Proposition 8. It restricts marriage to a man and a woman. Same-sex marriages are prohibited. Thankfully, according to CA Attorney General Jerry Brown, the 18,000 couples who wed between June and election day will continue to have a valid marriage. Even this ruling, though, is under siege by right-wing forces.

What this means personally is that, given the patchwork of marriage rights and non-rights across the nation, Nancy is my wife in California and in the states that recognize same-sex marriages: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island. Since I have a wife in those states, I guess that makes Nancy my mistress in the other 45 states, including our home state of Minnesota! You'd think that would be enough to make fundamentalist blood really boil.

In addition to having fun being married AND having an affair, we feel patient and hopeful about what we'd prefer: being legally married wherever we are. Every year the forces of tolerance eclipse the forces of bigotry inch by inch. I look at Obama's victory as a sparkling testament to what is possible. It will take a while longer, but Nancy and I believe that eventually the whole of the United States will support the right of everyone to marry regardless of their mate's gender.

Until then, I will have a wife in California and a mistress in Minnesota. Lucky me!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Yes, Readers, We Married

Yes, readers, we married.

September 3, 2008, on the 14th anniversary of Nancy moving into my home, we exchanged marriage vows in the enormous rotunda of San Francisco City Hall. We thank all the Californians who made it possible, including my sister Vicki and her husband Ric, our official witnesses.

Even before saying “I do,” we felt an unexpected, delightful consequence of marriage: people’s happiness for us. From the young San Francisco car rental agent to the middle-aged couple from Ohio behind us on the bus, from waiters to Bay Area friends and family members, people shared in our joy. Of course, we were beaming so much that they may not have been able to help themselves…but still, it was is amazing how such deep affection bubbles up from people when someone gets married.

Another impact is that we are now part of an official social structure. We are in-laws in each other’s families. Our relatives know what to call us when making introductions. Ric coaches Nancy on strategies for coping with the Bohan clan (don’t mention peaches!). The legal binds make for stronger familial ties.

Now that we’re back in Minnesota, a state that does not recognize our marriage, a bit of the glow is off. Yet, when we tell people we recently got married in California, they break into grins and congratulate us. Maybe some of the folks we tell don’t approve of same-sex marriage, but good manners—and perhaps a deep-in-the-bone response to such a basic social institution—win out.

I find that I want to share the news of our nuptials with everyone. Not only are we showered with good wishes, questions about the wedding, and requests to see our rings. Coming-out-as-married also helps raise consciousness. We are part of a sea-change, and bit by bit, the power of prejudice is evaporating before our eyes—and before the reality of the hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples getting married every place we’re allowed to -- in California, Massachusetts, Canada, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and hopefully, soon, even in Minnesota.

In that case, perhaps Nancy and I will do it all over again!


Friday, August 15, 2008

Stripping on Deadline

Now that I have your attention … I’m talking about stripping woodwork. Twenty-eight years ago I bought a 1925 Spanish bungalow in south Minneapolis. The combination living room/dining room has wonderful woodwork, but some previous owner applied a muddy, greenish finish that was so thick the grain was barely visible.

In 2005 I began to refinish this woodwork. I started with two radiator covers (pictured left) and beautiful red oak emerged. The results were exciting, but stripping, sanding, staining, and applying polyurethane is hard and tedious work, and I realized this would be a multi-year project. After taking 2006 off to finish writing our book, last summer I tackled the two ceiling beams, the fireplace mantel, and the stained glass window.

This summer Nancy & I decided to buy a new chair for the living room, a wedding present to ourselves. For all our years together, our hand-me-downs have served us well, but my dad’s old chair with the broken spring and dangling bottom cloth really needed to be replaced despite my sentimental attachment.

Well, the cascade began.

We found a chair we loved (they’ve gotten big over the years!) and as Nancy & I took turns sitting in it at the store, we thought maybe we should get two because our old swivel rocker would look pretty crummy next to it. From there it was a small leap to buying the matching sofa.

A few days after we ordered the furniture, we realized that the sofa would not fit through our narrow doors. So we called our handyman, who said he could remove two adjoining dining room windows, and bring the sofa in through them.

But what would happen when we needed to replace our 16-year-old carpet? We’d have to take the windows out again to remove the furniture. Might as well get rid of the carpet now and go to bare wood.

We called a neighborhood business, Earl’s Floor Sanding, for an estimate. Earl said that if we intended to refinish more trim, especially the base boards, we should do it before they began working on the floor. No way, I told him. It’s too much work for one summer.

Then I reconsidered. Refinishing creates such a mess. I didn’t want Ready Strip or Spanish Oak stain to drip on our new floor.

So for the last three weeks my helpers Nancy and Bill (Nancy’s brother who lives with us) and I have stripped, sanded, stained, and polyurethaned the living room/dining room baseboards, doorways, window frames, and built-in buffet. We put on two coats of poly before Earl and crew arrived on Monday. Now I’m in the garage refinishing the built-in buffet drawers and the door and window frame strips we pried off.

As the final coat of poly on the floor cures, I am sitting at the computer nursing sore arms, wrists, thumbs, fingers, elbows, back, you name it. But the living room glows with the natural beauty of rich red oak. It’s amazing what can be done under deadline.

Next summer, I’ll tackle the remaining removeables—three heavy doors, four paned buffet doors, and five casement windows. It will be my last summer of refinishing. After all the sawdust, sweat, fumes, and aches, my family will have a rich Northwoods lodge living room that will bring us much pleasure…and an occasional moment of marvel at how we did it all!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I Get Marriage

Marriage has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Two people have a ceremony, file some legal papers, celebrate wildly, and move in together. Sometimes they already share a residence. Admittedly, there are benefits that follow—joint tax filing, spousal coverage of health benefits, inheritance, hospital visitation rights, and so forth. In fact, there are some 800 rights ranging from puny to huge that marriage bestows. But none of this seemed relevant to me. I never missed those benefits, don’t enjoy ceremonies or parties, and already live with the love of my life.

But now thanks to last month’s decision by the California Supreme Court, Nancy and I have decided to get married, and suddenly my former indifference has vanished.

Marriage is more than the sum of rights. It is a powerful social and legal recognition and celebration of a relationship. It is an affirmation of my basic worth as a human being. Having California rule that I have the same right to marry the person I love as my sister had to marry the person she loves brings tears to my eyes and joy to my heart.

I imagine an American woman before 1920 thinking how nice it would be to vote. She could talk herself out of its importance, though, supposing that her vote wouldn’t change anything, and besides, she had enough to do without making time to go vote in every election. But once she could legally enter the polling place, she’d realize that voting is so much more than casting a ballot. It means participation in the democratic process and being part of the greater community. It confers the responsibilities of citizenship and, tacitly, those of adulthood. Marriage is similar.

After our decision, I began to think about how our no-frills ceremony would unfold. I will be 56 years old and Nancy 62 when we exchange vows on September 3. We don’t need anyone “giving” us away, a concept that has always grated on me—that passing a woman from her father to her husband as though “the weaker sex” couldn’t stand on their own. But when I imagined my sister giving me away and Nancy’s sister giving her away (not the way it’s going to be, by the way), suddenly the tears came. It meant leaving our families to start a new family.

Well, duh. But what is obvious for young heterosexual couples who will be starting a family is not so clear for same-sex couples, especially those without children. How many times over the past decades have I been asked about my family and I’ll talk about my parents and my sister. That Nancy is my family has not sunk into my bones. Now with marriage vows and the legal sanction of our love, I feel in a way that has never been real that SHE is my family.

I’ve also had to get over downplaying the importance of celebrating our wedding. Although our elation at the legal support of our relationship has been amplified by the many calls and emails congratulating us, when my sister offered to host a reception, we said we didn’t want any sort of party. “It’s a big deal,” she protested shocked we would even consider such a thing. “People want to celebrate with you!”

The whole concept of marriage has been so alien to me, a person who could not participate in it, that I have never really understood it. Now I am beginning to comprehend that on so many levels, it is a big deal. So not only do I get to have a marriage, I am finally starting to GET marriage.

Becky Bohan

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Twelve Tips for Coffee Lovers

Life is too short and java too expensive to waste time on inferior products. Here are my totally subjective tips for a good cup of coffee, gleaned from my six winters in Costa Rica.

1. Buy the highest quality coffee you can afford.

2. Choose organic shade-grown coffee. Who wants to be sipping herbicides and pesticides with your brew?

3. Buy fair-trade coffee. It feels better slipping down the throat when you know that the small farmers are getting a better shake.

4. Buy hand-picked coffee. In Costa Rica, the fields are handpicked three times, catching each coffee berry at its ruby ripest. Machine-picking (as is done in countries with larger coffee plantations) strips everything from the plant, including red ripe berries, immature green berries, and overripe black berries, plus leaves, stems, and insects.

5. Buy vacuum-packed coffee. Even better, look for a valve lock attached to the bag. These one-way valves prevent outside air from entering the bag but allow gasses emitted by the fresh-roasted beans to escape. According to the experts at Costa Rica’s Cafe Britt, a bag will keep up to a year unopened and six months in the freezer after opening.

6. Choose whole beans, and grind them fresh. Coffee’s freshness depends not on when it was harvested, but rather on when it was roasted and ground. As soon as roasted coffee is exposed to air, the flavor begins to deteriorate.

7. Make sure your coffee maker is clean. Wash it after each use, especially the part that holds the grounds.

8. Use pure water – unless you want chlorine- or other chemically-flavored coffee!

9. To avoid bitterness, let boiling water come to a rest before pouring it over the coffee grounds.

10 . Avoid percolated coffee. The boiling water keeps circulating, degrading the taste with every bursting bubble.

11. Resort to instant coffee only in an emergency. It is made from the lowest grade beans.

12. If you enjoy iced coffee, pour cooled fresh coffee into an ice cube tray and freeze overnight. The next day, place 2 or 3 of these frozen cubes in your coffee. As they melt, your beverage, instead of becoming watery, will retain its full, satisfying flavor.

After a three-hour Costa Rican coffee tour, which included raking beans as they dried in the sun and practicing making espressos and cappuccinos under the strict guidance of the barista, Antonio, I felt almost ready to apply for a part-time job at our neighborhood coffee shop. But my cappuccino makes it clear that I have much to learn about the fine art of coffee. The top cup shows my muddled attempt at decorating the foam. In the bottom cups are Antonio’s graceful and whimsical creations. But all three cappuccinos tasted stupendous!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Sound of Trees Weeping

Last month, during the dry season here in Costa Rica, Nancy was on her stomach on a massage table when she heard a familiar yet slightly odd stir from the garden: a rustling in the trees and what sounded like raindrops plunking on leaves.

“Is it sprinkling?” she asked.

“No, the trees are weeping,” replied our local massage therapist. “They are so thirsty they are asking the rains to come soon.”

Apparently, it worked. The rainy season started early this year. We’ve had some thunder and lightning storms worthy of Thor, himself.

Likewise, the Costa Rican national bird, the clay-colored robin, starts singing a loud wandering tune two weeks before the rains come. The robins were spot on again this year, and now they continue with their melodious call for rain (and for a mate), often starting at 4 a.m.

Before living in Costa Rica, Nancy and I assumed that the rainy season, usually from May through November, meant day after day of rain. Not so. The days usually dawn clear, with temperatures in the 70s. By late morning, it’s in the high 80s, and the sun feels brutal. Then, while we are having lunch on the veranda while the clay-colored robins pour out their song, the temperature suddenly drops, and clouds fill the sky. Soft thunder gradually rolls toward us until great booms shake the earth and the first fat drops splat on our metal roof.

The storms are thrilling, and we are both excited to experience a bit of Costa Rica’s winter or “green season” (as the travel agencies like to call it) before we leave. Bare trees are sprouting leaves, dry brown lawns are turning a lush emerald, and just today the nearby college campus sported a fresh mow job.

One warm afternoon last week, Nancy went out in the downpour to see water streaming through the maze of drainage trenches. She splashed under waterfalls sluicing off the palm trees and down our flooded driveway to the road. Just beyond the entrance to our apartment complex, two-foot-deep drains had already over-flowed, and a river was rushing down the road. A couple hours later, when we went for a walk in shorts and T-shirts, the sun was already drying the driveway.

The trees no longer make their special sound. All the weeping now takes place from the skies . . . . and from our eyes as we prepare to leave tomorrow. Nancy squeezes a last bag of Costa Rican coffee into our suitcase, and we take a final moonlit walk, our skin caressed by the tropics. We will go to bed early, knowing that the clay-colored robins will wake us at 4 a.m., plenty early to walk into the dawn of another spectacular day in Costa Rica.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Farewell, Costa Rica

After three months in Costa Rica, Becky and I return to Minnesota next week, leaving friends, the exquisite climate, and incredible beauty and bounty. In Minneapolis, there are no clusters of magenta bougainvillea blooming at our door. Royal palm trees don’t line the driveway. Pyramids of tree-ripened mangos, papayas, and bananas aren’t at our farmers’ markets. Nor does Cub Foods sell large pineapples for a dollar—what I paid this morning at the produce stand down the road. The owner skinned and sliced my golden pineapple with a few deft strokes of her machete.

I’ll also miss the Costa Ricans.

Not only are they amazingly friendly; they are also extraordinarily helpful. Two weeks ago our neighbors, retired community college teachers like me, got hung up on a rough mountain road. Within minutes, two farmers were on the scene with shovels to help Monica and Dick dig out their Nissan Xterra. When that didn’t work, one of the men drove into town, returned with two tow ropes, hitched the big Nissan to his pint-sized Suzuki Samurai, and was able to position the SUV so its wheels could get traction. When Dick tried to pay him, the guy wouldn’t hear of it. When Monica tried to reimburse him for his purchase, the man insisted he needed those ropes anyway.

Becky and I had a similar experience bicycling in the Osa Peninsula near Corcovado National Park, one of the largest remaining tracts of original tropical rain forest in the Americas. When my bike chain slipped, I tried to reset it, but the chain was jammed tight in the crankshaft. We were in the middle of nowhere an hour before sunset. We hadn’t seen a human being for two hours. Just then, some locals drove by, stopped, and analyzed the problem. The driver pulled out a wrench from his trunk and loosened the crankshaft enough to release the chain. Becky and I pedaled back to our hotel in time for a sunset margarita.

That evening, I ran into the same folks crossing a street in town. They greeted me warmly and invited us to join them at their house by the sea. The next morning the Garcias picked me up (Becky preferred to read under our ceiling fan and avoid the midday heat), and off we went for the day. Getting into the vehicle of complete strangers in a foreign country may sound crazy, but not in Costa Rica. I had a great time with the family, eating juicy red “water apples” from the tree in their yard and joining in their laughter at my Spanish pronunciation.

Now, when I see water apples at the farmers’ market, I remember the Garcias and the many other angels who have blessed our time here. Since Becky and I plan to explore other places in the coming winters, we may not return until 2011. We bid a grateful farewell to this tropical paradise, which has blessed us for six winters.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sol Medicine

The sun is my friend once again.

I’ve spurned Helios for many years, heeding the warnings about skin cancer. Thanks to my Irish and Norwegian heritage, my skin is particularly vulnerable to burning. I’ve faithfully applied 25-45 SPF sunblock, worn protective clothing, and donned a wide-brimmed hat. I have stayed inside between 10 and 2. If I ventured onto a beach, I was covered from head to foot.

No more.

“You need sun,” Dr. Kim, my acupuncturist said recently. “Fifteen minutes a day. Go outside in the morning in shorts and a sleeveless shirt.”


“You need Vitamin D from the sun. Not pills.”

For the past week here in Costa Rica, I have been soaking up rays for the prescribed fifteen minutes. I’m rediscovering the dreamy sensation of Old Sol warming my skin and the meditative lull of being held in its full embrace. It is a feeling from long ago.

As a child I would sometimes stretch out in the grass at noon under the summer sun and feel waves of heat wash through me. I could see pink though my closed eyelids. The earth would practically hum.

I’ve been pondering how really it is the sun that gives us life. Most of what we eat is converted sunlight. Think of the fields of wheat and beans, apple orchards and olive trees stretching to the horizon. All in the full glory of the sun, using photosynthesis to grow and ripen. It seems like a miracle.

While still cautious about mid-day exposure, I have released my fear of Helios. Excuse me, while I put on a tank top and go sit with my old friend.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sharing Field and Food

“Where are the fields?” I innocently ask Steven Farrell, the tall, bearded manager of Luna Nueva, an organic, biodynamic farm/lodge near Costa Rica’s Arenal volcano.

“You’re looking at them,” Steven replies with a smile, sweeping his arm toward the forest. “We don’t plant in rows. We mix the species.”

Nancy and I look again, jaws dropped. We’ve been walking a good fifteen minutes on a tour of the farm, expecting to come upon fields like those in the Midwest—lines of beans and corns stretching up and down the hills. But not here. What looks like another rain forest scene—a riot of plants—is where Steven’s workers plant and harvest herbs and salad greens, fruits and tubers.

What monoculture (one-crop-per-field industrialized agriculture) sacrifices for efficiency is the nutrient-rich, chemical-free plants that sprout every-which-way at Luna Nueva. The farm is a living example of the sustainable agriculture that Michael Pollan praises in his books In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

The sharing of land with a variety of species goes further. Steven says that they expect animals to eat part of the crop. He doesn’t mind. Every creature has its niche. Some get a little greedy, though. In the grove of 700 cocoa trees (already mature when Steven bought the farm for New Chapter, a Vermont-based herbal supplements company) the squirrels eat every one of the pods. Steven is devising a way to let squirrels have 90% of the crop and keep 70 trees for human harvest.

Some domesticated animals even work the land. Goats and pigs put in a good day of labor on resting fields by eating down the nitrogen-fixing vegetation and spreading their manure. Pigs love to root around for grubs and by the time they are through turning the soil, the field is ready for planting.

At various places on the farm, workers have hung up stalks of bananas. Birds are free to swoop in and feast. So are the guests staying in the scrupulously clean wooden cabins. Neighborhood children run up barefooted to snap off a treat. Even the baby pigs snort with pleasure when Steven tosses them a yellow delicacy. And nobody has to worry about the kids, guests, or pigs ingesting pesticides and fungicides with the bananas.

There is no sense of hoarding either land or food at Luna Nueva. The delicious meals were ample, and when Nancy and I left after our week-long stay, Steven filled a bag with just-harvested passion fruit, sweet potatoes, plantain, and papaya. He topped it off with the farm’s signature crop: the organic ginger and turmeric grown for New Chapter and used liberally in the hotel restaurant.

Steven Farrell, New Chapter, and the other people involved in Luna Nueva are impressive models of individuals contributing to the health of the planet and its inhabitants consciously and gracefully. They have even createad sacred Seeds, a sanctuary of endangered medicinal plants for future generations. Nancy and I spend two hours strolling its paths, learning about herbs, bushes, and trees that have been healing people for millennia.

There isn't a row in sight.


Saturday, March 1, 2008

With much pleasure, Becky

One day here in Costa Rica, I was listening to a conversation Nancy was having with a repairman. I speak little Spanish, and Luis’s side of the conversation sounded like this:

Blah blah blah blahblahblahblah Nancy blahblahblahblahblahblahblah Nancy blahblahblahblah blah blah Nancy.

That wasn’t the first time I had noticed how much Costa Ricans use a person’s name. Clerks in the store, tellers in the bank, neighbors, friends, and family tend to say a person’s name in a friendly, even loving way, during a conversation. Even a simple “Gracias” often merits a response of “Con much gusto, Becky” (With much pleasure, Becky) rather than the typical Spanish “No problema.” We had dinner with two Costa Rica couples recently, and I bet they said the names of each person at least a dozen times during the meal.

A person’s name is an important part of his or her identity. Using that name in a pleasant, caring way infuses an exchange with warmth and acknowledges that person’s place in the world.

Nancy and I love this custom. We’ve started saying each other’s names more often as well as the names of those we meet. This is one of many Costa Rican customs that seems to make for a friendlier world.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Green Funerals: Old Peruvian Style versus New Mayo Clinic Style

Human bones on display in the San Francisco catacombs in Lima, Peru
Photo by Nancy Manahan
We are spending a week in Lima, Peru visiting Nancy's brother Jim Manahan, who is on assignment here for four months. (More on that in another blog.)

We’ve made the rounds of several museums and historic sites including the Church of San Francisco built in 1674. This church is famous for its vast underground catacombs containing the bones of 75,000 people.

In this first cemetery of colonial Lima, bodies were laid in pits and covered with quicklime to hasten decomposition. We walked past boxes with femurs organized in herringbone patterns and deep pits with thousands of bones and skulls artistically arranged. Hundreds of skulls are stacked on shelves cut into the earthen walls.

Another museum in Lima contains twenty-five-hundred-year-old mummies from the pre-Inca era. Given the arid Peruvian climate, it was a perfect way to preserve bodies. Both the catacombs and the mummies are precursors to the modern concept of green funerals. (See below for our earlier blog, "Green Funerals 101.")

All this put us in a receptive frame of mind for an article we discovered in London’s prestigious newspaper, The Guardian. “What Really Happens When You Die?” features interviews with six professionals who handle corpses. They detail the procedures of autopsying, embalming, burying, and cremating a body--the modern ways of death.

The most interesting part of the article is a description of an environmentally-friendly alternative to
Photo by Nancy Manahan
conventional burial or cremation: resomation. According to Dean Fisher, the Director of the Mayo Clinic’s Body Donation Program, this new technique uses “water, potassium hydroxide and steam heat to dissolve the body.” What’s left at the end of the process is “nitrogen, phosphate, proteins, amino acids, salts and sugars,” the basic elements that comprise our bodies. Fisher says that this “innocuous fluid” can be “safely disposed of or used on land as a fertiliser”! The remaining bones are pulverized, as in cremation. There are no toxic emissions like mercury released into the atmosphere.

According to Fisher “there are only a few resomation chambers in operation in the world, all of them in the US” including one at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

This environmentally-friendly method of dealing with our bodies may be the wave of the future. For more information about this greener alternative to cremation and burial, visit Resomation Ltd.

Hundreds of years from now, North and South American tourists may pay to tour museums formerly known as cemeteries!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Locks and Illumination

Self-reliance coupled with ingenuity makes for creative repair work in Costa Rica. Last year, for example, the lock on our car door broke. We could have driven to the Nissan dealership in San Jose, an unwelcome 2- hour round trip. We didn’t know if a part was even available for our 1991 Pathfinder.

We had noticed a locksmith sign down the road from our apartment. The young locksmith, whose open air shop is in his driveway, examined the door and said, “No problema!”

Jose disassembled the door, took the broken rod over to his work bench, rummaged around for a piece of metal, and bent it in three places. He slipped it into place and turned the key in the door, locking and unlocking it several times to make sure it worked. It’s been fine ever since.

In the States, we would have ordered a new part, waited for several days, and paid for the part plus a minimum labor charge. In Costa Rica, our door was repaired in ten minutes. The cost? $8.50.

I thought of Jose the other night when we put new batteries in our flashlight. We got a beam of light only if we pressed on the battery cover. Obviously the connection needed to be tighter. I remembered seeing a shiny little washer in the driveway the day before. Nancy slipped it into the cover plate, and viola: Light!

We avoided sending the flashlight to a landfill, and making a trip to the store to buy a new one. We appreciate that Costa Rican culture encourages us to be creative, to make do, and to slow down—all ways of living more simply and, we suspect, more fully.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Lunch in Eden

This weekend Nancy and I visited an organic farm near Arenal Volcano. It supplies herbs for the New Chapter product line. Our friend Beverly, an herbalist in New Mexico, is planning a field trip for her students this spring, and she wanted to check out the operation.

Nueva Luna, tucked back off the main road, is an Eden. Everything from the landscaping to the open air dining room exudes tranquility. For lunch we ate delicious organic greens picked that morning, with an organic chicken and yucca casserole plus the Costa Rica staple, rice and beans. We could hear and see a toucan (the big-billed Fruit-Loop bird) calling in a nearby tree.

It is amazing what one person with a vision can do. Steven, the manager of Nueva Luna, has been farming organically for 30 years. New Chapter used him as a source for their herbs and eventually had him buy a farm and run the operation. The demand for organic products has grown so much that Steven, who used to supply 100% of New Chapter's turmeric and ginger, now provides only 4%, as other farms worldwide join the list of suppliers.

We will be returning to Nueva Luna in March for a 4-night stay. I’m sure I’ll have more to report then. Meanwhile, Nancy and I will continue to search out organic produce—not always the easiest thing to do in Costa Rica even at the marvelous local farmers’ markets.

As the medical intuitive Jamie Champion once told us, “Fresh trumps organic.” And fresh is what we have in abundance here-- mangoes, pineapples, papayas, bananas, and many other fruits and vegetables. We eat with gratitude for the earth that provides and for the many farmers like Steven of Nueva Luna, Karen & Jacqueline of the Women’s Environmental Institute in Minnesota, and our brother-in-law, Steve Anderson, whose passion brings us nature’s best.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

From the Arctic to the Tropics

For Nancy & me, part of what makes our life so enjoyable is being physically comfortable. Luckily we have similar comfort zones—temperatures in the 80s are perfect during the day and temperatures in the 70s are ideal at night.

Minnesota is currently in a deep freeze. We left Minneapolis January 19, when the thermometer huddled at a bone-chilling minus 13 degrees. The pilot announced that it was 80 degrees in Costa Rica. By the time we landed, the evening had cooled down to a balmy 72.

We don’t think of our preference for the tropics as escaping winter as much as it is choosing comfort. While we enjoy winter, especially when a fresh blanket of snow covers the earth, month after month of it is too much for us—and stressful for Nancy’s lungs. We also love the simplicity of warm weather—light-weight clothes, no heating (and, for us, no air conditioning), and local fresh fruits & vegetables. Having our first juicy mango, papaya, and cantaloupe felt like a sacrament!

We are in the ear-to-ear-grin-stage, barely able to believe we are back in Costa Rica—for our sixth winter. Our eyes are feasting on the orange, pink, and magenta bougainvillea. After weeks of long underwear, wool socks, down jackets, stocking hats, and heavy boots, we walk out the front door of our apartment in shorts and a T-shirt. Nothing else.

Life is simple and full here. We love it!!!


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Paco's World: Outstanding!

“The Sea and Nature,” Paco said, his weathered face beaming joy. “That’s what I love. The Sea and Nature. And everyday I get to be on this boat. It’s what I was meant to do.”

We were snorkeling off Monkey Island in Puerto Rico over New Year’s with friends. We had run into Paco a few days earlier along the harbor in Naguabo. The old salt pointed to his blue and red wooden boat anchored nearby and encouraged us to join him on a tour.

“The weather Wednesday morning should be outstanding!”

Wednesday we drove through a rain storm to the harbor. By the time Paco strolled up with snorkeling equipment in hand, the rain had receded. Motoring us across the bay, Pace waved his arm toward the horizon roiling with dark clouds. “It’s a beautiful day to be out!” he exclaimed. “Look how calm the water is. And just past those clouds it’s clearing up.”

We snorkeled over the wreck of a sugar cane barge that went down in 1948. The years had turned it into a reef where hundreds of parrot fish, blue tangs, porcupine fish, and black and yellow sergeant majors congregated. Back on board, we watched rhesus monkeys cavorting on land.

“Oh, man, look at them monkeys monkeying around!” Paco laughed.

As he steered us back to the mainland, Paco waxed philosophical. “Do you know what’s the most important thing in the world to learn about?”

We waited.

“Yourself! You got to know who you really are!”

He thumped his chest. “You got to be true to what’s here. If you’re doing what pleases others instead of yourself, you got nothing.”

He tapped his heart again. “You can’t be afraid. Age doesn’t matter. Do what you love!”

Paco’s eyes crinkled at the rolling waters of the Atlantic as he seemed to drink in the energy that nourishes him.

“What a beautiful day! Isn’t Nature outstanding?”

Although Paco steers his boat over the same nautical mile toward the off-shore monkey reserve every day, the trip is a joy for him. He showed us a vivid example of living fully—loving what you do and doing what you love.