November 30, 2005

Luckless Iguanas and Monkeys of Gold


Like Napoleon's army, a solo backpacker travels on his own stomach. I have walked here, there and everywhere, usually alone and always hungry. I can pack ten days worth of food without much strain. But such fare is monotonous: Ramen noodles, oatmeal, dried soups and pasta, macaroni and cheese (the cheap Kraft kind) and coffee. Such haute-cuisine is chosen for its weight, not for its taste. No cans are permissible: too heavy, too bulky. Also excluded (for me anyway) are those delightful backpacking meals offered in myriad flavors and recipes. They cost too much, are unavailable in the jungle and Andean haunts I love and are a bit, well, dainty.


A true backpacker eats to walk not walks to eat. I leave the good eating for the end of the hike after I have earned such pleasure through the most excellent method of having endured physical pain. And that---among many other things---is what solo backpacking is: accepting day after day self-inflicted, brutal physical pain all in the service of beauty and solitude. And as God is my Witness and my Judge it is always and everywhere worth it.


There are times when I walked out of mountains and jungles that I felt myself invincible simply for having thrived alone for days on end in a hostile place---places such as Choquequirao and El Petén. Accomplishing such vastly increases the delight in real food, what one would find in a Chinese restaurant in Cuzco or in a chicken joint near the ruins of Tikal.


There could be food available during a hike. It is so in the Peruvian Andes. Setting up a tent near a hut or a village will lead to offers of rice, beans, plantains and yucca. I reciprocate with my own cooking. Those Ramen noodles which bore me excite the locals. Both they and I are better off.


Occasionally there is food available in jungles as well. It was so during one of my many Honduran walks. Some years ago I was looking for a gold mine. Or a lost city. Or both. Anyway, I was somewhere in the province of Colon walking from the Sico River toward the Mosquito Coast. (Click on the map below.)



The trail was muddy and difficult. I ended up in a village along some unnamed jungle river. The locals were hospitable and curious, and they competed among themselves to see who would provide me with a place to camp. The winner was the Jones family. I set my tent in front of their hut. The Jones clan had migrated to Honduras almost 100 years before, first from England, then Jamaica, then the Bay Islands. They settled in the jungles of the province of Olancho on the Honduran mainland. There they contracted the 'gold disease,' la fiebre de oro. Over the ensuing decades the life and vitality of this family was drained away by the fruitless search for gold. When I met them they had so intermingled with the locals that they had forgotten much about their heritage; they had become pure Honduran.


My first night there the Jones family invited me into the hut for a dinner of rice, beans and iguana. The unlucky reptile was pulled alive from a cotton sack and slaughtered then and there. It screamed and writhed while the knife sliced it open but at last gave up the ghost. I had never eaten iguana and hoped never to eat it again. Its flesh was oily and repellent, and nothing like chicken. (Click on the image.)



The Jones family talked of gold, of nuggets seen and unseen, of rivers somewhere deep in the jungle that shimmered from the glint of golden ore that lay beneath the surface waters. They fed me hints of a strange god, a monkey god of white gold buried by the Chorotega Indians when they heard of the approach of the conqueror of the Aztecs, Cortez. The Jones swore to me that they could find that monkey god. They wanted me to go with them. We would get some rifles ("for the crocodiles") and some canoes and head out on the river in a search for white gold. Though their eyes had the look of madness, I said I would think about it. It turned out that I declined the expedition, to my occasional regret. I know perfectly well what happens when a group of well-armed gold seekers finds gold. Men die.


After a few days I walked further into the jungle to find another member of the Jones clan, the patriarch really. He had a house some 20 miles away. It took some doing to get there. There was no path but only a muddy trail used by horses and mules. There was no way I could find the house by myself, so I hired a mule and driver who knew the route. The driver attached a sack to my mule which contained a live iguana. This was to be my dinner, alas. (Click on images.)


Mule driver with dinner


It took some time getting there as I knew nothing of the ways of mules. The beast ended up throwing me off into the mud near a river. I responded by punching it hard right below its eye. I walked the rest of the way.


The patriarch's house was remarkable. It lay along a stream that he had dammed to supply power to the machines that sluiced for gold. He also had built a crude canal system. There were several houses; the patriarch Jones and his wife put me up in their own. After the ghastly dinner I asked them about the tale of the monkey god. For the next hour Jones spoke of treasure, of conquistadors infected with gold fever, of Indians hiding their precious god from rapacious Spaniards, of doomed expeditions lost while seeking the monkey god of gold.


When he was done Jones saw the crucifix around my neck. He asked to touch it, and then held it between his thumb and forefinger in the same way that I hold the Rosary. His eyes sparkled as he exclaimed, "It is gold!" The others in the house gathered around to touch the crucifix. They were not entranced by what it represented but by the golden ore of which it was made.


I left the next day. The driver came with me. We both walked as that damned mule had stayed at the house. Back again at the first Jones' house I set my tent and marveled at lives wasted away in forsaken jungles in the quest for shiny metal.


Yet there is something to it after all. The tale of the monkey god has never ventured far from my thoughts. Dream-like and ghostly, it wanders in and out of my consciousness, as tempting and as alluring as a fantasy of a beautiful woman.


Camping at the Jones house


The Jones Family


River near campsite


Me and the damned mule


November 18, 2005

Like Mother Like Son

My mother had a difficult life. She liked to say that she had made many 'bad decisions.' Yes she had. I came into this world as a result of one of them---I am not complaining, just giving information. If you really want to know, I am glad she made that decision though it cost her dearly and was made in the fleeting passion of a moment. For she gave me life: real life, full life, a life shot through and through with Glorious Victories and Glorious Defeats. I have thanked her many times in many ways, but never enough. Does anyone thank his mother enough?

She now sees the face of Christ. Where she is there is no pain, there are no tears, there are no regrets---only joy. I hope to share this with her some day. But not yet. Not yet.

My mother had an adventurous soul but it was always kept bound---more of those 'bad decisions,' you see. She had dreams of exploring the globe, of wandering 'where there ain't no Ten Commandments,' of boldly going here, there and everywhere. Her adventure world was lived through books. In them she was free of her earthly chains. She would take steamers on jungle rivers. She would encounter bizarre mysteries and solve them. She would explore ancient ruins buried in some Andean fastness. She would search for the Holy Grail, for the Lost White City of the Maya, for El Dorado and find them all. But all she really explored was Tulsa and Portland in her 71 years.

In ways that only God knows her soul was passed to me when I resided comfortably in her womb. As a child I became lost among my mother's books. I hunted lions and tigers and bears. I roamed among savages. I explored ancient ruins. I ventured where no man had gone before.

And I made my share of bad decisions. None crippled---at least outwardly---and some actually freed me from the common responsibilities of male adulthood. (I am not claiming this was a good thing, I am only reporting what happened.) And so it was that I was able to do all those things about which my mother had only dreamed. I know now why she was so intensely interested in my travels: to Africa and the Middle East, to Central and South America, to jungles and mountains, to ruins ancient and modern. She was living her dreams through her son.

Some months before she died she excitedly asked if I would watch a movie with her. "Sure mom. Which one?" "Lara Croft, Tomb Raider!" she said. "Um...OK mom." As we watched it I saw the eyes of my mother widen and glow. She seemed not to be in the room with me. She was entranced and hypnotized by the action on the screen. Here was Lara Croft with two pistols battling a robot; here she was learning of a hidden mystery; here she was in a jungle among ancient ruins; here she was defeating a legion of male foes. I did not understand then why my mother was so involved with the movie.

But I do now. You see, it was not Lara Croft my mom was seeing but she herself. It was she who with two pistols battled a robot; it was she who learned of a hidden mystery and solved it; it was she in the jungle among ancient ruins; it was she who defeated a legion of male foes. My mother was living through the movie her fantasies  that the world had denied her all her life. She was again young; young and full of possibilities and dreams and ambitions.

She would watch that movie again and again until cancer carried her away.

Two days ago I came across one of those silly internet quizzes. You know, where you answer a bunch of questions and then the quiz will tell you whom you most resemble in History or Literature or something. This particular quiz would tell you which 'Action Hero' you would be. I took it. Here are my results.

You scored as Lara Croft.

A thrill-seeking, slightly unscrupulous, tough-as-nails archaeologist, Lara Croft travels the world in search of ancient relics perhaps better left hidden. She packs two Colt .45s and has no fear of jumping off buildings, exploring creepy tombs, or taking on evil megalomaniacs bent on world domination.


Lara Croft



Indiana Jones



William Wallace



Captain Jack Sparrow



The Amazing Spider-Man



The Terminator






Neo, the "One"



Batman, the Dark Knight



James Bond, Agent 007



El Zorro



Thank you, mom.


Mother and son, October 1953


November 12, 2005

Random Access Memory


On a fine Saturday I am trapped at home. My stomach makes war upon my body and the contest is at times ferocious. My body will win of course, but I curse the meantime. And so I entertain myself as well as can be by organizing old photos. Some are odd, others routine, all invoke an uneasy nostalgia. I do not really know why---unless they present a reminder that I have not set foot upon South America since...well, November 2003. God, has it really been two years? Something must be done. Something will be done. Just not right now.


Here they are in no particular order. All images are clickable.


At the ruins of Tikal in northern Guatemala, 1987.


Peruvian landscape near Chachapoyas, 1987.


Resting in the Honduran forests, 2004.


At the Pico Bonito Ranger Station, Honduras, 2004.


Beginning my true vocation at the Marian Baker School,

1989, Costa Rica


A hammock sleeping system I developed for jungle exploring, northern Guatemala,1989. Moments after I shot this photo communist guerrillas

 came out of the bush and took me and 40 others hostage.


At a Chocó village in Darien, Panama, 1987.

Hanging from the hut is the skin of an unlucky jaguar.


Climbing Agua Volcano, Antigua, Guatemala, 1986.


With Peruvian Indian, 1997


Classroom in the Peruvian Andes, 1997


Hitchhiking in Nicaragua, 1983


Exploring the Mayan ruins of Palenque, 1983


Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, 2002, one day before the picture below


Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, 2002.

The faint trail goes over the ridge and drops down to a wet and forested valley.


At Teotihuacán, Mexico, 1983


Finishing 4 days on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, 1987.

 The other two guys are Cameron (on the far left) and Karl.

 Cameron hailed from Scotland and was kind of a loser

 who had scraped up enough money for a year-long trip.

The day after this photo a llama spit in his face.

 Karl was Austrian and was far too used to

 the cakes and coffees of Vienna.


I do not care much for Vienna, but I would like to get back to South America before I get too fat and lazy to head out alone into the wilds there. Is it June yet?


November 7, 2005

Hapless Homilies, Silly Sermons

It happened again. Yesterday at Mass the priest mounted the pulpit and began his sermon. It was sort of a commentary on the day's readings from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, part of which hints at the End Times:

For the Lord himself, with a word of command,
with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God,
will come down from heaven,
and the dead in Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive, who are left,
will be caught up together with them in the clouds
to meet the Lord in the air.


So far so good. The point was to remind Catholics to think about such things. But then the sermon began to wander and completely lost focus. The priest used the readings to launch into a diatribe on Evangelicals, mainly their belief about the Rapture and the coming Tribulation. He used the series of Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins as an example of Evangelical thought. It seems our priest believes that the ideas put forth by these two are indicative of Evangelical thought.

Well, they are not. By themselves the Left Behind series are somewhat anti-Catholic, childishly written and filled with cardboard characters. They are also mildly entertaining if one is stuck at an airport for a few hours with nothing to read. The trouble is that there is no such thing as 'Evangelical Dogma' just as there is no such thing as 'Protestant Dogma.' At last count there were 20,000 Protestant churches. Most disagree on some of the finer points of theology though all disagree with Catholicism on a whole host of issues. Protestants themselves are all over the place concerning the Rapture and Tribulation. Our priest did not think so however.

He went on to claim that this belief in the coming Rapture led Evangelicals to act as though these things were soon to occur. The priest then bemoaned the influence these Evangelicals had in the White House---that is, upon the mind of George Bush. (Bush is a Methodist, by the way.) From there things went loony. He claimed that Evangelical thought led to environmental devastation---he mentioned drilling in ANWR---the war in Iraq and what he termed the mindless American support of Israel. The priest even threw in a good word about the Palestinians. In other words, the sermon embodied the talking points of what passes for thought among the lunatic Left.

The priest is around 70 years old and should know better. He might have paid attention to the first reading of the day:

Resplendent and unfading is wisdom,
and she is readily perceived by those who love her,
and found by those who seek her.

---Wisdom 6:12-16

It has been a long while---a very long while---since I have heard a homily that actually taught something about Catholic theology. Usually homilies are full of feel-good bromides, silly claptrap and gooey sentimentalism. Nothing about Sin, about Hell, about the Devils among us---and scant little about Catholic morality or dogma. If one does not hear about such things how can one be revitalized into the Catholic life?

For the 'real deal' sermons I go to the Protestant radio stations that are all across the dial here in the Bible Belt. Say what you want about Protestants, they know how to write sermons. Catholics once had this talent as well, but after Vatican II priests have spent more time indulging themselves in leftist politics and socialist economics. I wrote of this trend before:

As an orthodox Catholic I have long I have bemoaned the fate of my church. It seemed to be losing its moorings and moral certitude. The Church seemed to be conforming to the world rather than militantly confronting it. Priests since Vatican II were more and more secular and hip, and some even refused to wear their clerical collars. Their morality---on priestly celibacy, on birth control, on homosexuality---was wobbly, their theology at times heterodox and heretical, and their passion for Catholic doctrine and faith was watery. They were often at odds with the pope, whom they saw as too conservative and out of touch. These priests took root from the 1960s onwards and spread their doubts and weaknesses throughout the Church and her teaching institutions. Since they came to power people have fled Catholicism into the arms of the Evangelicals and Baptists, whose Bible-thumping preachers were not embarrassed by the doctrines of their faith.

Receiving the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass is of sufficient, but I wish that priests would mention actual Catholic teaching a few times a year and leave the silly leftist politics for the Democrat Party.


November 5, 2005

Po' MoDo

Poor Maureen Dowd! She is being pummeled all around. The catalyst was her essay What's a Modern Girl to Do?  yet there are any number of her writings going back a decade or more that would have served as well to critique what passes for thought in her catty mind. I have had my two cents worth---a bargain at that price!---and so here are a few more comments from those more eloquent than I.

From Catholic blogger Amy Welborn:

Dowd's piece was just too...personal in a creepy, almost pitiful kind of way...It strikes me even her question - Why am I not married? is decidedly un-feminist, a betrayal of the sensibilites she claims to be defending...Her central thesis - that feminism has failed because men don't like smart, ambitious women and want to marry the maid instead is just stupid. What's missing from Dowd's analysis is simple, and takes one word to say: family.

From Althouse, concerning Dowd's preference for hanging out with the high, mighty and well-connected rather than engaging in the tough work of being a wife and raising a family:

Ah, who needs to get married if you can go to the White House correspondents' dinner and hang out with a beautiful actress!

Roger Simon tosses MoDo a bit of sympathy:

I never thought I'd feel sorry for Maureen Dowd, but her article in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine - What's a Modern Girl to Do? - made me feel some sympathy for the woman whose bourgeois political snarking...on the Times' oped page is usually about as appealing as sea slugs without Szechwan sauce...But this time Dowd is baring her soul in a sense, trying to make heads or tales of the fact that some attractive, intelligent, powerful women like her find themselves alone in their fifties...But being intelligent and powerful may not be the whole story for why she is alone.

From Slate columnist Katie Roiphe, a piece that demonstrates that women can be far more vicious than men:

Dowd pushes every statement to its most exaggerated form; her column occupies a space somewhere in between the other columns on the New York Times op-ed page and the political cartoons that sometimes run there...It would be one thing if Dowd were writing pure, straightforward polemic, ranting against the people she feels the need to rant against. But Dowd is pretending to cover cultural trends with journalistic accuracy, and it is this pretense that gives her arguments a shoddy feel.

And finally---for I cannot take it anymore!---from Kathleen Parker, Feminism's devolution from hoaxers to whores---an essay title that says much:

Dowd, herself unmarried and childless, wonders whether being smart and successful explains her status...Men haven't turned away from smart, successful women because they're smart and successful. More likely they've turned away because the feminist movement that encouraged women to be smart and successful also encouraged them to be hostile and demeaning to men...As far as I can tell, real men don't have a problem with smart, successful women. But they do mind being castrated. It's a guy thing. They do mind being told in so many ways that they are superfluous.

I feel for MoDo. She is in pain but does not understand why. So she strikes out at men---all men, the suave and the crude---for not performing as she would want. But Dowd is---as are we all---a collection of life choices: the Good ones, the Bad ones, the Ugly ones. She is what she chose to be, and pays today for yesterday's decisions. She struggles against the bonds of what economists---a remarkably unromantic bunch---call 'opportunity costs.' Time and resources being finite, the true cost of a thing is what you sacrificed to get it. Dowd sacrificed marriage and children to become a successful writer, and now she laments that she is alone.

I understand, as I too live alone. But I am not going to complain about it.  Especially in public.


November 1, 2005

The Emptiness of Maureen Dowd

(Updated 11/02)

If you can possibly stand it, read the latest screed from New York Times opinion writer Maureen Dowd. Titled What's a Modern Girl to Do? it pretends to be a lament on the decline of feminism but is really a heartbreaking insight into what is---and what ever shall be---a lonely and embittered woman.

Like all such Ms. Dowd blames her ills on others, and has an unpleasant view of her own gender---at least, those women who are not New York Times columnists and their acolytes---and simply cannot understand why she is still single. Her conclusion is that the modern male is frightened of the modern female---the modern feminist female that is. A male associate of hers

confessed that he had wanted to ask me out on a date when he was between marriages but nixed the idea because my job as a Times columnist made me too intimidating. Men, he explained, prefer women who seem malleable and awed. He predicted that I would never find a mate because if there's one thing men fear, it's a woman who uses her critical faculties.

Dowd then asks

Do women get less desirable as they get more successful?

So Dowd cannot get a man---she means a husband---because she is 'successful and uses her critical facilities?' Well then, what of her non-feminist sisters---you know, all those millions and millions of moms and wives who ignore what the New York Times thinks of 'Life, the Universe and Everything'---are they unsuccessful imbeciles? Dowd cannot see the real causes of her unhappiness and so chalks it up to being so smart that men are afraid of her.

And why is Dowd so miserable? Part of the reason is that she hangs out with others equally as miserable and equally as clueless:

A few years ago at a White House correspondents' dinner, I met a very beautiful and successful actress. Within minutes, she blurted out: "I can't believe I'm 46 and not married..."

The self-blindness startles. How many 'beautiful and successful actresses' have loving husbands and children? The usual 'lifestyle' of a 'beautiful and successful actress' is not one that lends itself to marital happiness and stability. One need merely consult any newspaper or People magazine to find any number of 'beautiful and successful actresses' indulging in sexual antics, adulteries, multiple divorces, all sorts of addictions and dressing---how does one say it?---'immodestly' in public. Someone should inform that 'beautiful and successful actress' that a man would certainly bed her but would never consider her anything other than a...well, you know.

Ms. Dowd would have done better to avoid anyone connected with Hollywood. She herself was once the consort of actor Michael Douglas. He never married her nor gave her children---why buy the cow when you get the milk for free? When Douglas tired of her he left her arms to woo the young and fetching---and fertile---Catherine Zeta-Jones. Say what you want about Zeta-Jones, she knew what to do to keep her man: she presented Douglas with children. They since have married. This sad and grotesquely cruel sentence says it all:

Catherine Zeta-Jones Expecting Again

 (Maureen Dowd remains bitter and childless)

Dowd consoles herself by seeking out those who move in her own rarified circle. She seldom makes a personal connection with those outside of it. Her view of men and women is derived from spending her entire life with folks just like her:

A friend of mine in her 30's says...Anne Schroeder, a 26-year-old magazine editor in Washington...Marc Santora, a 30-year-old Metro reporter for The Times, says...One of my girlfriends, a TV producer in New York...When I asked a young man at my gym how he and his lawyer girlfriend...At a party for the Broadway opening of "Sweet Smell of Success," a top New York producer...A few years ago at a White House correspondents' dinner...John Schwartz of The New York Times...Or, as Craig Bierko, a musical comedy star and actor who played one of Carrie's boyfriends on "Sex and the City," told me...A Harvard economics professor, Claudia Goldin...Kate White, the editor of Cosmopolitan, told me that...Cynthia Russett, a professor of American history at Yale...Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmo's founding editor told me...Felix Dennis, who created the top-selling Maxim, said..."I have been surprised," Maxim's editor, Ed Needham, confessed to me...

From this miserable and morally bankrupt crowd it is no wonder that Dowd has a miserable and morally bankrupt view of marriage---and of men:

By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying -
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

Someone should inform Ms. Dowd that a man does not enjoy being called a liar at the outset of the marriage.

Something else a man would not enjoy is a woman known for her 'acid wit' and 'tart tongue.' We males have a word for such a woman---and it rhymes with 'rich.'

The simple truths about men are unknown to Ms. Dowd. She would have been better off consulting Dr. Laura and reading Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives  than fact-checking with the noisome and elitist neurotics that inhabit the byways of Washington and New York.

Dowd tells us more about this motley throng of associates than perhaps she intends: more and more women embrace Botox and implants and stretch and protrude to extreme proportions to satisfy male desires. Now that technology is biology, all women can look like inflatable dolls. It's clear that American narcissism has trumped American feminism.

This then is one of the results of feminism among the New York and Washington elite: women who chase after botox and men who chase after inflatable dolls.

And what about Ms. Dowd claiming expertise about how to 'satisfy male desires?' How would she know? She herself laments about being unable to do any such thing. Else, why the bitterness?

And Ms. Dowd, demonstrating that misery loves company, predicts dire consequences for those women who abandon the feminist mystique and retreat into motherhood:

It's easy to picture a surreally familiar scene when women realize they bought into a raw deal and old trap. With no power or money or independence, they'll be mere domestic robots, lasering their legs and waxing their floors - or vice versa - and desperately seeking a new Betty Friedan.

So there it is, the feminist ideology all wrapped up: What a woman needs is power and money and independence to avoid becoming a slave to man. But then, why does Ms. Dowd complain? She has all of those things in abundance.

And Dowd actually believes that those women who today choose babies over boardrooms will tomorrow lament for a new Betty Friedan---in other words they will seek out the same grotesque ideology that has brought Dowd and her sisters such intense and permanent unhappiness. The results are obvious to those with eyes to see: empty wombs, empty beds, darkened hearts. And poor Dowd would infect all women present and future with the same disease that is killing her.

The sad reality of the life of Maureen Dowd and the lives of all like her---the Gloria Steinems and Betty Friedans and Simone de Beauvoirs---is that they chased the false goddess of feminism. They came to see marriage and children as a form of slavery, and the only way that a woman could be truly free was to pursue a professional career---that of writer, academic, executive and lawyer. But during all that time spent avoiding the misery of marriage and children their own biological clock was tick-ticking away, until that terrible moment when their ability to bear the next generation had passed forever.

This is the horrible pain of Maureen Dowd, that she suffers for her children that never were. She rages against the dying of the light that she herself has extinguished.




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