The Good Life

Though reading the new book Smart and Simple Financial Strategies for Busy People makes me roll my eyes and throw my head back on the pillow every time I read about 529s (state college funds, to be started when baby is mere twinkle in dad's eye), it also makes me mentally edit and weigh our yuppified purchases. Just because one can afford $20 shampoo doesn't mean it's not way too expensive. Manicures are also nice-but-not-worth-it. On the other hand, eating out is a good thing. I find it really fun. And usually worth every penny. Beyond the little things, we are recrafting our retirement accounts, approaching the remodeling of our kitchen with an eye on the market, and dreaming of our next real estate purchase. The book says it's best to pay under 35% of a net income on mortgage.

Yesterday, on a whim, we dropped in on three neighborhood open houses. Two of them were sensibly priced single-family homes that we found boring. The third one, however, was 1.5 million. That is the only one we like. Unassuming in front, and set on a hill, the new construction has a deep tub, addictive views of Boston, and a wet bar. "A wet bar!" crowed Blue, suddenly peppering me with questions about my career path and might I make Vice President at my company someday. "Imagine how fun it would be to have all of our friends over!" Oddly enough, I'd just been scheming his rise to the top myself.

Still, returning home, it was gratifying to prefer our place over those homes (OK, maybe we can't beat the views or the tub, but we do have some nice oak trim) and to feel as though changes we'd made ourselves were actually worth something. A couple hours later we were on our hands and knees with a 1000-degree heat gun and a cheap scraper, pulling up the glue-filled linoleum tile in the kitchen to reveal lovely dark hardwood floors. Maybe with a little handiwork, we'll someday sell this place for 1.5 million.

Probably not, though.


The other night I tried to play footsie in bed with Blue. I thought it was just the two of us. "Watch out for my baby!" he said. I paused, forgetting, my big toe gingerly touching his left foot. "That's the foot where Maggie lives," he said, a touch of pride in his voice. I snapped my feet back to the far side of the bed. "In case it's a girl, I call her Maggie," he said, "short for..." "Enough!" I said, suddenly feeling a tad nauseous.

The maggot seems to be thriving, and someday, hopefully not long from now, Dan's left foot will have fully nourished the growth of a lovely Amazon fly. Free to fly right into the February cold of Boston. (Or, more likely, to stay with us in a terrarium forever. But that's another story.)


In the personal lives of celebrities

Angelina is pregnant, Brad has adopted her other children, and the list of the newly single includes Hilary Swank and Jessica Simpson, and apparently, soon, Britney (as a married person, I can say that it's really never a temptation to "go without my ring" just to, you know, see how it feels). When we were verging on Hour 5 in a motorized canoe on the Amazon tributary Madre De Dios several weeks ago, I found myself idly pondering the year in celebrity gossip, having already silently replayed all my favorite moments from Friends and Six Feet Under. "We're so far away from the Jennifer Aniston situation," I told Blue, who mused aloud about Peruvians probably not taking much interest in this American love triangle.

We asked our guide, Keti, about it that night. She smiled down at her soup and nodded. "Oh yeah," she said, "everyone was talking about it, how Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were making loud noises" (while in Kenya, the pair were said to have had such loud and strange sex that the motel staff were alarmed) "but why did Jennifer Aniston and Brad break up I wonder?"

The three of us sat around, the night sounds of the jungle around us, wet from our cold showers taken after a day of hiking, faces lit only by the tall candles on the table, and discussed the love lives of American celebrities. We pondered why any seemingly stable relationship ever collapses, what a mystery love is, and why Brad, Jennifer and Angelina became a global story, one that rattled people in relationships all over the world.

Later in the trip, trudging through the small, dusty village of Pilcopata, where a little girl yelled to me, "Hola, gringa!" and I yelled back, "Hola, chica!" we saw into people's homes from the wide dirt road (the only road), torn posters of Britney plastered to flimsy walls. "The young Britney," observed Blue. Seeing her face next to those of Peruvian soccer stars was like a trip back through time; she was 16, blond and American, before Kevin, Preston, and a forgotten ring.



Brokeback Mountain has affected me more than any movie I've seen in a long time. It's very beautiful, a raw portrayal of the lonely West, and a true love story. I see both why it's hard to transpose politics onto it (it's just two people in love) and why it is filling up theaters: the film is an excellent document of what it means to be human. In the loneliest places, you can still feel good when you're loved; how amazing! It's also love held off before it gets spent in mundane ways. Society is so cruel that we never get to move beyond that with these two, which is painful but also serves to preserve their love at its most beautiful and pristine.


My More Unpleasant Traits

While in an orientation this morning at my management-obsessed company, I was handed a booklet on "Behavior Style Profiles." I eat this stuff up, but I already know I'm an Intuitive Feeling Judging Whatever, so I figured I'd skip the test and just determine my profile by reading the descriptions. This pamphlet breaks people down into four categories (which can, of course, be subcategorized): Controllers, Stabilizers, Analyzers, and Persuaders.

I promptly thought of an unlikeable acquaintance when I read the Controller description, and then, for me, zeroed in on the two categories that are most interested in people and relationships; these are the likeable kinds of people. Stabilizers and Persuaders. "That's me," I thought happily. After all, I like relationships, right? I don't care about systems or numbers or rules. But the problem was that those categories weren't a perfect fit. I certainly have no trouble expressing my emotions. I never avoid conflict where it can be productive. And I don't really "wait too long to act." On, uh, anything.

I took the test, just to see which one I was, a Persuader or a Stabilizer. You've probably guessed by now what I am, especially if you know me. Overwhelmingly a Controller. "Oh no," I thought, as I looked again at the profile of the drastically unlikeable Controller, the one profile no one can really work with.

Where other categories need security, appreciation, to know the rules, to be liked, etc., you know what I need? Here's the entire list:
-To make decisions
-Action and results
-To win

Oh, my, god. I am a terrible person! Later, of course, I read the longer descriptions a bit more and noticed that my profile at least includes some attributes that are not just dreadful. Hey, man, I'm self-reliant! I'm, uh, demanding...wait, that one's not good...I'm direct! What's wrong with being direct? And independent? And determined? And adventuresome? And a risk-taker?

I think it's when all the traits of the Controller are put together that it starts to sound like maybe not so pleasant. I mean, OK, yes, I'm more "results-oriented" than "sympathetic," sure, I'm an "agitator" where others might be "cautious," but whatever! Taken alone, many of my traits are very interesting. Then I got to the list of things I like. And I had to take a deep breath.
-Freedom from controls

And I have to admit, that is me in a nutshell. You aren't leaving much out there. That's me. Undoubtedly. At my very core. And that isn't especially likeable. No. But that's me.

We interviewed someone this afternoon, and as an exercise I silently flagged every Controlling thought I had. I stopped when it got too depressing. There were a lot of them. "Stop talking so much," I thought once of someone. "You're fidgeting!" I thought of another. I had the eerie feeling that I was mirroring some of the less pleasant figures in history. I happen to like myself, so out of respect for myself I'm going to refrain from going into detail about exactly which historical figures came to mind, but just think, a bit dominant; creative, yes, but unfortunately totalitarian.

I'd like to end this entry on an up note, since I feel good heading into the long weekend, but the best I can say is that, despite the mortification I felt when I dropped my personality test results in my lap this morning at orientation, I still think I'm pretty cool. Maybe that's just the self-reliant problem solver in me.



When we filled out the little customs card on the way home from Peru, I truly did not believe that we were bringing home any native animals, so I checked the box next to "no" when asked this very thing. About a week later, Blue was sitting in our kitchen, looking at the bottom of his bare foot.

"I have a bite that looks strange," he said, "and it's not getting any better."

I squinted at it. It was white, with a distinct hole in the middle. "Just cover it in Neosporin," I said, my standard Western first-pass response to anything that goes wrong with someone's body.

"Hmm," he said. "I'm going to go look at it and, uh, see if anything moves."

Something did move. And it moved again. And again. Just a little movement, the edge of a yellow worm, visible just under the skin. About an hour later, staring alternately at his foot and at the Internet, he had a positive diagnosis. "I've got a botfly, sweetie!" he called out almost joyfully as I made dinner.

Maybe it's just an instinct that kicks in when you realize your husband has a larval worm feeding off of his flesh, but I immediately began scheming of ways to kill it. Doctors have lasers, I thought. We could laser it. Or I could sterilize an X-acto knife and do a little surgery. "Ugh!" said Blue, recoiling, apparently more horrified by the idea of a tiny cut than by the six-week larval cycle ending when a fully formed Amazon fly emerges from his left foot.

I realized, however, that all my scheming was in vain later when he said: "Do you realize that this is the closest I am going to come to actually giving birth?" As I began to protest, he continued, "I mean, this little fly is going to have wings, and a body, made entirely from me. It's amazing!" He pulled up a chair to the dinner table. "I'm eating for two now!"

While at a party over the weekend, we had cause to break our silence on the live-maggot-in-the-foot thing (generally a kind of awkward conversation topic), and a crowd of scientists gathered around his foot late on a Saturday night, talking excitedly. I marveled at the things I'd never know about if I didn't marry a biologist, and even felt a very small amount of appreciation for the tiny worm who wants a piece of Blue.


How can it still be 3:30?

Remember how long summers used to feel when you were a kid? The way time could just slow down and stretch out? That's how it was in Peru. We would look at a clock and be shocked that it was only 10am and we had seen so much, thought so much, been so utterly absorbed and relaxed and amazed. It was wonderful to feel the very slow passage of time.

Now, however, I am work. At my new job. At my job where they think it's a little early yet for me to telecommute. Which means I'm at a desk. All day. Did I mention I'm expected to be here all day? In this building. While my cat is at home alone, but that's another story. Time still creeps by. Slow, delirious time. Tick tock. And down the hall there stands a vending machine. Filled with goodies. Nothing but time, a vending machine, a habit of eating for comfort, the stress of being in a new job, and about $6 in quarters I gathered from the Miami airport one day while trying to call another country.

Not the best combination.


Happy New Year!

Despite an all-over under-the-weather-ness, this weekend was one of my better New Year's Eve experiences. My parents joined us for First Night downtown, where after a car picnic (including rosé) we saw wonderful storyteller Jay O'Callahan accompanied by a wonderful youth orchestra (comparable to my best live classical experiences) and then we caught, bt some grace, singer Odetta celebrating her 75th birthday at the Berklee Performance Center. Her creaky voice belting out "This Little Light of Mine" and reminding us that "no one ever did anything good for the world by acting small" was beyond sweet. But I was, as Blue observed, a little too serious this weekend, sobered by 2 weeks of rough travel in a third world country and somewhat depleted by sickness. There's nothing like a little jungle experience to provide a new and robust appreciation of one's couch and bed. Watching Charlie & the Chocolate Factory on the couch with the cat last night felt like the fulfillment of my greatest dream (although Tim Burton strayed from Dahl's vision in the second half with a checklist approach to bad ends. Still pleasurable as a treatise on parenting).


The most surprising thing about our trip to Peru was the drugs. Not taking them, although we did try chewing coca leaf, but learning about their origin and use while in a society that respects drugs. We had coca candy and coca tea, like everyone, and on Christmas Eve our guide vanquished her headache with dried coca leaves pressed to her temples while one of our boatmen kept his cheek stuffed with the mild stimulant. I never forgot that this leaf is the source of cocaine, but I also kept in mind that Peruvians don't have a cocaine problem. The plants of the jungle provide remedies and intoxicants; this is where chocolate, cocaine and coffee come from. Hiking, our guide picked up a cacao pod that had been half-eaten and tossed down by a monkey, and then broke open a bean for me. There it was, wild on the forest floor, the essence of the chocolate I buy at Whole Foods.

Over dinner one night our guide, a 26-year-old Peruvian with a pierced eyebrow, a love of "metallic" music, and a deep respect for the culture and tradition of her people, gestured toward a beautiful flowering plant growing about four feet away. "My boyfriend ate that plant once," she said, and went on to describe the intense hallucinogenic effect of what I'd assumed was an innocuous shrub. But there are no innocuous shrubs in Peru. In the jungle, as I lay clutching my stomach one afternoon and dripping sweat in the humid 95-degree heat, our guide announced that I needed hot tea from an Amazon tree. Milton, our lead boatman, collected bark and made me tea. I thanked him for it later in broken Spanish. The tea was red, thick, not a bad taste at all, and I had hesitated to introduce anything else to my suffering body, but I drank it anyway---when else is your boatman going to make you tea from a tree in the Amazon, I asked myself---and it actually might have worked. At least nothing bad came of it, and within an hour or two I was eating the popcorn that our cook made for us.

Because of the mysterious ways of developing countries, flights to the tiny airstrip on the edge of the jungle had been inexplicably and without warning cancelled for that week, and the four other people who had been scheduled to join us simply could not. So as it happened Blue and I had a private 8-day tour through the jungle with our own guide, cook, driver, and two boatmen, which was both wonderful and awkward. Over wine and champagne in the jungle on Christmas Eve, we looked around at the faces of the Peruvians and thought both that this was an unforgettably amazing Christmas and also that we never intended to take four parents away from their families on Christmas. Our cook never looked sadder than when she told us the ages of her children (7 and 11). You can't really escape Christmas, I've found, no matter how hard you try, which is too bad, because I haven't really enjoyed it since I was in my early teens, and it only seems to get worse. Of course I have enjoyable times with my family on occasional years, but I think they would be enjoyable without the spectre of Christmas looming over them. And Blue and I did enjoy the season this year, with our first home and tree and all the cookies and friends, but one in-law did her best to make us dread ever choosing to enjoy it again, and I hate it. The whole future of holidays really makes me nauseous. It seems to only get worse with children, as well, since you are always taking your children away from one side or the other. I think I get tired of other people's expectations of the holiday, and apparent inability to truly enjoy it on their own, and it turns out that south of the equator, in the wild jungle, in the dense heat, people still have unfulfillable expectations of that damn holiday.

But back to the vacation. We saw seven different species of monkeys, and seeing monkeys in the wild is just wonderful. They aren't afraid of you at all. They are curious, sometimes, and watched us as we watched them, chatting, cocking a head to one side, shaking the tree a little bit to see if we notice. The capuchin monkeys in particular want to see if they can scare us off, so they jump up and down on leaves and branches and make serious scary faces, but are so cute and furry that it just made me want to follow them all day. Baby monkeys cling to the backs of parents, and often a mama monkey would gaze down at us as a very small identical face peered over her shoulder. Monkeys are loud and dive from tree to tree, making every moment death-defying. During night hikes we'd hear the solitary night monkey cooing in his lonely, eerie way above our heads, and at 4 am groups of howler monkeys would start their deep wild howls at the sun.

We also watched giant otters in the wild, playing and catching fish, noisily crunching fish bones with a happy, lopsided grin. And the leaf frogs, tree frogs, tarantulas, a little armadillo and later a big tapir swimming across the river, a baby tapir named Pancho who cooed at me as I petted him, and a tame spider money named Pepa who curled her long black limps across my husband's shoulders as she balanced herself around his neck. And so many bright birds and flowers. The blue, scarlet, gold macaws alone, squawking joyfully during their flights across the treetops.

There was also the demolition of some of my more romantic ideas; it turns out that four long days in a boat on the Amazon is, while wonderful, also sometimes boring, and sometimes uncomfortable (especially in heavy, cold rain). Not knowing Spanish or having any fondness for binoculars or the particulars of biology sometimes left me out of the jungle-trip dynamic. All I really wanted was adventure, with maybe some animals on the side.

And we did get adventure. A tiny one-lane gravel road carved into the side of very steep mountains is the only way into the jungle, and two seperate carloads of people died falling off this road on Christmas. We spent a total of 20 hours creeping along this bumpy road in our van. I had to edge away from the window at times because the steepness was so jarring, not to mention the many memorials dotting the roadside. Sometimes only a foot of grass stood between the road and the vast abyss below. On the drive back we took a two-hour break as 30 local men cleared the road, using only a jack and a crowbar, of three massive boulders that had fallen in a landslide the night before. As we stood and watched the action, I could hear another rockslide in the far distance, that unmistakable break and then what seems like a full minute of seismic booms as mammoth rock careens down steep mountains, crushing the ancient trees in its path, splashing in some distant river far below.

I also had a brief encounter with the native people. Thousands of tribespeople live in the Manu Biosphere Reserve, a protected area of Peru that is roughly twice the size of Puerto Rico. Too sick to hike one morning, the two boatmen took me silently to the tribe's lodge, where I exchanged smiles with the women in facepaint, the naked children, the men gardening with crude tools. "This is like a dream," I thought, but I was too much on display, a spectacle for the people, and too sick to revel in the intensity, and after a while I went to the river to sleep on the boat, despite the biting flies and 100-degree heat. The jungle is so beautiful, but there's so much life there that it's hard to ever relax.

Peru is beautiful all over. The faces of the children as they ran alongside our bus; the dogs out everywhere (dogs are almost communal in developing countries, it seems, and universally doted upon); sheep and llamas grazing the sharply sloping mountainsides; the patchwork shantytowns of mud brick and half-finished construction; the chickens underfoot; and even in Lima, with our one stunning night there overlooking the Pacific Ocean, heavily armed guards in all black nearly surrounding us and guarding our hostel all night; the beautiful, stunning Andes. I was glad to come back, just to catch my breath, and to have control over my time again, but our first day back we gazed around at all the opulent wealth, and I saw how icy cool things were, how people indulge their children, hide in their shiny cars, keep their things inside, and I missed it all a little bit. In Cusco one afternoon I saw an Incan woman with a typically brilliantly-colored cloth around her shoulders, the kind most women carry a baby in, and behind her a little girl with a matching garment, toting her precious cargo: a stuffed bunny, ears flapping around, face peeking happily over the edge of the warm rose cocoon.