Saturday, January 12, 2008

Costa Rica I: Paradise on the brink

I recently spent seven days in Costa Rica on a largely encapsulated tour that took nine of us by mini-bus to a volcano (Arenal), a cloud forest (Monteverde) , a butterfly garden, a placid Pacific beach (Manuel Antonio) and a transitional forest (Carrara National Park) linking ocean to mountains.

Along the way, we encountered Howler and Spider monkeys, small wild pigs (peccory), nesting macaw, an andolescent boa constrictor, crocodiles, a tree sloth, a Toucan, a Quaker and tourists, lots of tourists.

I should start with our guide and host Sergio Volio, who worked for years in Costa Rica’s parks and was a walking encyclopedia about native flora and fauna. Traipsing along a forest trail, his powerful telescope over his shoulder, he’d scan the forest canopy for signs of life. Blobs of fur, flashes of plumage, a floral burst. We too craned out necks for discovery, but compared to Sergio, we were blind.

“Look!” he’d say. “A King Vulture! Do you realize how fortunate we are to see that. The King is legendary.” And he would share the legend.

Between hikes, on the long bus rides between destinations, Sergio doled out the history of his country, the struggle to preserve its stunning and fragile ecosystem, and warnings of the ravishes of booming, unmonitored growth that threatens to overwhelm Costa Rica.

We passed garish condominium enclaves for expatriates, mostly Americans. Century 21 Realty signs dot the coastal road skirting the languid Pacific beaches. The rococo gated entry to one sprawling development was festooned with in-your-face American flags.

One of the best sources of information about the country is the English-Language “Tico Times.” It’s first issue of the new year carried a story headlined “’08 will not be a good time for Flora, Fauna” Among the problems: “Tourism development itself is eating up open space and encroaching on the country’s wildlife, and rivers have been converted to open sewers. Laws are lax and enforcement even more so.”

Statements like that didn’t make looking in the hotel mirror each morning any easier. Our little band of visitors was a part of the problem. For two nights in Monteverde, we stayed in a massive hotel complex of 900 rooms. It was built up a hill so steep that you had to take a shuttle bus to get to your room.

Some efforts have been made to slow growth. Monteverde, high in the mountains, straddling the continental divide, is a good example. A settlement of Quakers, conscientious objectors to the Korean War, put down roots in 1951 and soon nurtured a conservation movement (and opened a cheese factory that is still thriving) To slow growth, the Monteverde Quakers persuaded the government to leave the roads to community and its surrounding forests unpaved. The hoteliers liked the idea too because the roads discouraged day tripping. Tourists, arriving after hours of rutted dirt roads, stayed overnight.

But the corrugated roads haven’t stopped the flood. Monteverde has the allure of forbidden fruit. While many, perhaps most, visitors seek out the forests for study, spiritual sanctuary and enlightenment, hordes of thrill seekers come for the adrenaline rush of the zip lines that course above the canopy. The forest silence is punctured by howls and screams of zip liners streaking above the trees and beneath the intrusive cables.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Costa Rica, with its 500,000 species, nearly 4 percent of the world’s total, is no secret to environmentalists like Sergio, who are fighting to expand its parks and preserves. Today, one-fourth of the country is protected. Indeed the country has a larger percentage of its land set aside for parks and preserves than any other country.

Because it has been so closely studied Costa Rica, is where one of the early warning signs of Global warming’s devastation was discovered. Tree frogs and other amphibians, sensing the change in climate, were forced higher and higher into the mountains until there was no place higher to go. There they face extinction. The tiny, colorful Costa Rican frogs were the canaries in our planetary mine shaft.

But so much more needs to be done, as the Tico Times and Sergio point out. The fragility of life in the face of global climate change is no more apparent than here, in this richly diverse, interdependent community of life.

Those who have visited Costa Rica and have been shown its endangered treasure may leave, but they can never turn their backs on it.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Remembering Oscar Peterson

When Oscar Peterson died just before Christmas, memories of my jazz-infused youth came flooding back.

Peterson became my musical destination. I’d venture into Chicago on nasty winter nights to listen to “The Trio,” as it was aptly called. No other jazz trio rivaled it. The Windy City venue was the up-scale London House along Michigan Avenue. As the snow gusted and swirled off the lake, pianist extraordinaire Peterson, guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown warmed the place with high-voltage jazz. The players would have all been in their thirties at the time — and feeling it.

A few years later, in the Bay Area, I’d make a similar pilgrimage, this time to San Francisco, The City, to hear Peterson, Ellis and Brown. Drummer Ed Thigpen and vibes player Milt Jackson became part of the mix. The smoke-filled jazz cloister was The Black Hawk in the Tenderloin. Those of us under drinking age sat in the back, segregated by chicken wire. We sipped over-priced Cokes, cheap at the price for the chance to feast on the sounds of Peterson and friends.

Peterson and company (in various configurations) defined trio jazz in the Fifties, Sixties and on into the Seventies. Among my many well-worn albums from the period was the trio’s on-the-mark tribute to Frank Sinatra. “Night Train” and “Affinity” were staples. I obliterated “Affinity,” wearing down its grooves until I had to buy a replacement.

The Canadian-born, classically-trained Peterson will be most remembered for his blazing technique. His runs and riffs bend the mind. Say what? How’s that? How could one musician squeeze off such a fusillade of notes?

At times, Peterson’s stunning mastery overwhelmed the music. His talent had a habit of overleaping bounds. He’d swerve out of a groove and into a rut. The good news was that the rut wasn’t a ditch; Oscar would always manage to wrestle himself back on track. Watching him do it was part of the exhilaration. Besides, even in a rut, the Peterson wheels kept spinning in wondrous ways.

I’ve found over the years that the Peterson performances I like best were collaborations with subtler, even understated, musicians, When you listen to the classic “Ella and Louis” album (and you must!), that’s Peterson backing them in an uncharacteristic, spare accompaniment. Peterson is also on the acclaimed Ella Fitzgerald “Songbook” albums. Listen carefully to the back-up chords and harmonies. Without Peterson’s filling in, “Ella and Louis” and the Verve “Songbooks” would not be the classics they have become.

Count Basie, a genius at keyboard understatement, had the same effect on Peterson in a series of “Satch and Josh” duet albums. All the sessions are excellent, but “Timekeepers” is my favorite of the lot. Oscar carefully, respectfully, embroiders Basie’s own spare solos. When it is Peterson’s turn to be front and center, he is clearly under the spell of Basie’s minimalism — and is a better musician for it.

Of course many of the musicians I’ve mentioned here are gone now: Basie, Milt, Ella, Louis, Ray. The music they left remains on CD and iTunes. It is a vibrant, resounding echo of my many musical pilgrimages.

The reverence remains.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

God talk and nailing Jell-O to the wall

I’ve just returned from a Worship and Ministry meeting at our Quaker Meeting House on Stark Street.

Sorry to pitch you into Quaker business but it’s on my mind, and besides, you might find it interesting.

And to think that I had originally planned to write a post tonight about the late, prodigiously talented Oscar Peterson or the precious fragility of Costa Rica.

Another time.

Our Worship and Ministry meeting had a fair share of “God Talk.” I always find Quaker “God Talk” fascinating, in part because we worship in silence. “Words do not describe….”

I worship in silence because silence is where I find an ineffable God. A God beyond words.

To me, talking of “God” is a like nailing Jell-O to the wall. Ultimately it doesn’t work, although the futility of it all can be enlightening, even as the divinity blobs and then pools around your feet.

A major problem with “God Talk” is that no two of us, if we are honest, have the same conception of God when we say “God.” Yet because we use the same word, “God,” we give the false impression that we are in agreement — until we get down to cases.

When we do get down to cases, we are surprised (shocked, offended, outraged) to learn that we don’t have the same conception at all. (Whole wars have been fought because of varying conceptions and beliefs about “God” and his "true will" etc.).

God the father, God the creator, God the judge, God “our hope in ages past, our hope for years to come,” God Almighty, Deus ex machina, God “A Mighty Fortress!” etc.

Did someone say "Amen"?

I don’t like to use the word or name or whatever it is for just this reason. I’ve suggested using [ ] or ••• or some such to indicate….what? It is ineffable. “Ineffable” is word worthy of its existence if only to explain [ ] and the need for its word-less-ness.

Driving home in the rain after the Worship and Ministry meeting full of “God Talk,” I thought of John 1.1.

"In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God."

Not so fast, John, I thought. That may be the way you saw it, but for me, in the beginning there most certainly wasn’t the “word.” Instead there was [ ], a "no-word."

Also, while we are at it, John, what’s all this about “beginning”?

If we are part of an eternity that has no end, isn’t it equally conceivable there was no “beginning”? Even if we accept there was a beginning — just to get things started — what came before it? Nothing? Isn’t “nothing” something — [ ].

In Asia millions are much closer to this realization, even though they have hardly avoided fighting about belief. I'm with those for whom all of this becomes the un-nailable, ineffable "way" — the Tao without a name.

Here is how Lau-tsu describes it:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

"Crying out loud" meets the Japanese Garden

One of the students in my Portland Community College writing class, Lisa Lynch, tends an attractive blog, "fer crying out loud." I've added it to the Red Electric's list of links.

Her current topic is her training to become a Japanese Garden tour guide. She has graced her description with photos of Portland's garden. Need I say more? Hie thee to her site.

The very thought of being a Japanese Garden tour guide has life-altering allure. If the Red Electric ever goes blank one day, you will know where to find me. I'll be leading tours in the Japanese Garden — either in Washington Park or the Great Beyond.

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One year to go: The Agony and The Ecstacy

The good news is that we have just one more year of George Bush and Dick Cheney. The bad news is that we have an entire year left of George Bush and Dick Cheney.

One test of how bad they are is how good they make the presidential candidates look. I mean ALL the presidential candidates, right down to Rudy "9/11" Giuliani, as creepy as he is.

Just imagine, every last one of these presidential aspirants has worked hard enough to learn how to pronounce "nuclear." I've often wondered whether a president who cares so little about saying the word cares enough to know that nuclear weapons are, like, the ones that could know, incinerate the planet, including Texas.

It just feels so cozy and comfortable to have alert, articulate and intelligent people running for the highest office in the land. Sure, some of their ideas are crazy and they occasionally screw up, but at least you don't get the feeling that they have just emerged bleary-eyed from some dynastic cocoon and are looking to pick a fight.

These candidates, compared to Bush and Cheney, all seem so, well — ADULT.

One year to go. Keep your fingers crossed.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Parents surrendering, then losing kids to "screens"

My friend and fellow media activist Jean Rystrom of Kaiser Permanente is a great source of information about trends in excessive, damaging "screen-time" use among children.

In the last two days, she has sent me and others two telling e-mails. The first is a link to a Wall Street Journal column, "Teenage Zombies," which echoes many concerns I've heard recently from parents. The primary one is that kids are becoming addicted to video games and are isolating themselves from their families and others.

The second lays out the alarming exposure of very young children to screen images, despite the medical community's warnings about the dangers posed, particularly to those under two. Parents, it seems, are turning over responsibility for their children's well-being to television programmers and TV hucksters.

Here's her report, which I have edited slightly:

I'm sending you a four-part series (one a week) of my brief impressions from important medical studies in 2007 pertaining to screen time (you'll be happy to know that I'm leaving out articles which pertain primarily to content as opposed to time). Consider all of the usual caveats: I'm not a researcher, and I "might" be biased.

This first message is simply an update, particularly about younger children. The issue continues to grow in importance and urgency as more opportunities to watch are developed and marketed, and aimed at younger and younger kids. Clearly we continue to have a lot of work to do: raising awareness is still a priority. Most parents are not aware that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all before age 2 (which has more to do with brain development than obesity, although that too is an ever more serious problem).

* 20 percent of children under age 3 have a TV in their bedroom

* 43 percent of children age 3 and 4 have a TV in their bedroom

* Most common reason cited by parents (54 percent): "it frees up other televisions in the house for other family members to watch their own shows"

* 27 percent of 5 and 6 year olds use a computer on a typical day

- Vandewater et al, Pediatrics, May 2007

* By 3 months of age, about 40 percent of children regularly watched television, DVDs, or videos

* The median age for introduction was 9 months

* Average 1 hour per day by age 12 months

* Parent reasons: education, entertainment, and babysitting

- Zimmerman et al, Archive of Pediatric Adolescent Med, May 2007

Jean and I are part of a coalition making a major push in the next two years to ensure that the dangers of early childhood exposure to screens are widely known and addressed in Oregon. Jean represents Kaiser Permanente (see its excellent website on screen time and its impact on kids); I represent Media Think. Other members include the State Health Department, Multnomah County Library, the County Health Department, WIC (Women, Infants and Children), Community Health Partners and the Oregon PTA.

We'll keep you informed of our progress.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

End the "bloody" political "warfare"

Of course it is the season of the political cliché. The best known and weariest is the “horse race.” Because it so dominates press coverage, it deprives the public of what it needs to know — namely candidates' stands on issues.

But give me the “horse race” anytime over the metaphor of the political “battle.” It’s everywhere and editors seem to thrive on the “jousts,” “attacks,” “taking hits” and “batterings” that their reporters and headline writers so thoughtlessly serve up too the public.

On the front page of today’s New York Times two stories shared a headline: “Two Political Warriors, Back on a Favorite Battleground.”

Bill Clinton and John McCain are “warriors,” but at one time or another all the candidates have been described as "battlers" or "victims" or "casualties" of political warfare. New Hampshire is the “battleground,” but it is only one of several s0-called “battleground states.”

The Press isn’t the only party to blame for the bloody, belligerent and brutal hyperbole. Politicians themselves have “attack ads” and “war rooms” etc.

Of the many harmful consequences of infusing politics with militaristic language, two stand out. First, the public wants to seek refuge from the political process. We become refugees from media coverage and many of us, statistics show, no longer vote at all. Small wonder.

Instead, we should, at the very least, become vocal conscientious objectors to such objectionable, demeaning language.

Second, the drumbeat of violent language drains meaning and significance from real war and institutionalizes and normalizes militaristic behavior. We come to expect some kind of war or military intervention every four years or so. Like the bare-knuckled election cycle, we have a war cycle. The arms industry thrives on it.

We, the public should demand that every editor and candidate in this country direct their charges to mothball the sad and destructive metaphor of war and fighting.

Instead, let's have a peaceful politics of sweet reason in which debate is, as it should be, constructive.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Wanted: A course in ignorance

Today I shoved to the back burner my work on three essays resulting from our recent encounters in Costa Rica. (See last night’s post.)

Earthlink, my DSL provider, went dead for about six hours so I happily turned to books on this cold, damp Portland Sunday. I was fortunate enough to pick up Lewis Thomas’ “The Fragile Species,” one of my recent Hillsdale Book Sale acquisitions. I’ve mentioned Thomas (1913-1993) before. He’s best known for “Lives of the Cell.” Like it, “The Fragile Species” is full of insight.

Here’s just one example before I turn in for the night. Lewis, doctor, medical researcher and succinct writer, knew the virtue of humility in his profession, despite the public’s lofty expectations of and demands on it. In an essay titled “Becoming a Doctor,” Thomas recommends that the first two years of medical school make room for a “few courses in medical ignorance” — “so that students can start out with a clear view of the things medicine does not know.”

There is no better qualification for any professional, or for anyone for that matter, than to be aware of what one doesn’t know, and to freely admit it. Humanity would be well served by studying its ignorance.

How often in political campaigns do candidates admit to ignorance? We should think better of them, not worse, for such admissions.

Instead of an honest “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” far too often we get evasion, question-begging or outright lies, and pay a terrible price for it.

No need to name names.

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