Sunday, April 15, 2007

19 Hours to Take Off

It's 4 PM, Texas time. I've got a plane to catch at 11 AM tomorrow morning that'll get me to Miami in time for the Lima, Peru flight at 5:35. Then it's sitting in the airport from midnight till 5:45 AM for the flight to Iquitos. I'll be there, in the biggest city in the western Amazon before 8 and back in my old hotel room at the Hotel Isabel before breakfast.
I'm headed out to take a small group into the deep jungle for a little while. We'll do overnight riverboats packed tighter than a Mexican bus, night canoeing on a river where there is an occasional 15 foot anaconda and more frequent, though smaller, caiman. There will be hiking in primary jungle, swinging from 80 foot vines, having the Matses blow snuff (nu-nu) up our noses and burning our arms to apply frog-sweat medicine into our subcutaneous skin layers. We'll eat piranha and wild boar or anything else the locals try to sell us because you've got to contribute to the local economy even if you don't particularly lust after wild boar. There might even be a large grub worm or two (suri) or termites we can fry up. And there will be breadfruit and wild purple potatoes, and plantains and yucca we might dig up. There will certainly be some yerba louisa (lemon-lime) and mandarin orange tea we'll make after collecting the herbs and leaves.
And then there will be medicine. Ayahuasca the way it's been done for a long time down in that part of the world. Good medicine that's helped those people stay alive and strong for thousands of years.
So there will be medicine and magic and I'll bet by now my guests, who will join me on Saturday morning, the 21 of April, are beginning to get just a little jittery now that the time is close. I wonder if they're wondering what the hell they've signed up for. Except for one, none of them know me. Yet they somehow trust that I can take them 200 hundred-plus kilometers, 17 hours, up river from Iquitos, put them into this genuine Amazon jungle movie, have them canoeing with crocs and eating grub worms and then get them back in one piece. But by now they're probably wondering if that trust is well-placed or utterly misguided. A couple of them might be heaving by the time it's time to board their planes.
Me? I've been sick for a week. I always get sick before a trip. I have endless things to tie up, from duping tapes someone ordered to getting my kids' tux-for-the-prom rented to doing the lawn, getting the garbage to the dump, finishing two stories for my regular and wonderful gig, not to mention redoing the medical kit (I pray we don't need it but I still have to bring it), packing and sorting out the funds for everything.
And then there is the real reason I get sick: I hate leaving the kids. The older boys are okay, but Madeleina, I think, still feels abandoned when I go. She acts out, I act out. You can explain all you want to kids, that I need time away from writing to refresh my spirit, that I need the extra income to take care of things here at home, but she still feels like I'm leaving her and there is a little part of her that knows there's a chance, not a big chance, but a chance, that I might not come home. Or that when I do it will be like last year, with seeping holes from a flesh eating spider bite that got septic and ugly. Or like the year before that when I broke two teeth on shotgun pellets in a piece of rodent and came home with a different smile that's yet to be fixed.
And I know she wonders what I'll do if I fall in love with someone there.
I know what I'd do. I'd still come home when I said I would because the kids are my real love. But she's just a kid and she doesn't believe that all the way.
And so I've been working my ass off and being sick and feeling like I'm doing something wrong by going away again, even if it's just a few weeks this time. And it's going to get worse tonight, and even worse tomorrow morning when I take her to school and tell her I love her and will see her in a few weeks. She'll be angry, I know, because she always is. She'll tell me not to bother to come back. Inside she'll be crying and lonesome and outside she'll be a defiant little girl who doesn't need her dad after all.
And I'll be crying on the outside and the inside.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

They Stone You When You Trying To Be So Good...

I am gonna be the last person in the world to complain. I've got my health, a strong body, a good mind, three healthy kids, two Ford Rangers--1994 with 275,000 miles and a 1998 with 110,000 miles--that are paid off and run like new, more work than I can do, a house that leaks but not too much, three dogs, two goats, a cat, lots of birds, a girl who lives with my oldest son in my house; an ex I'm getting along with; her new baby who calls me Pe-Ter and spends three or four days with me weekly, and I'm headed down to the Amazon for a three week trip in five days that people are paying me to lead.
So I'm not going to complain.
Three years ago I felt the same except that I had no work. So I was behind. I was borrowing all I could. I've already written about those hard times in an earlier post. This time I'm saying I've paid the Television a couple of months in advance, paid the phone two months, the water three months, the car insurance for everyone two months, the electric and phone two months and the mortgage isn't due for another three weeks.
And I've still got a thousand bucks in the bank.
It's not a lot, I know. But it's more than I've had in a long time, and so I'm sitting pretty and the family is eating good. Tonight I'm making shrimp and baked chicken thighs (not together, just two different things), steamed broccoli, salad and Basmati rice with garlic.
That's living large, folks, so forgive me for feeling good. When a dad can't provide he feels like garbage; when he can he feels like he earned his sleep at night. He'll still wake up three or four times to check that everyone is okay and that there's no problem outside the house, but he'll have good dreams.
And I appreciate that more than is possible to explain.
Being poor, really poor, for a while has reminded me of how it was for me years ago, before the good times. So I had to do a full cycle and come back to desperation despite the hardest work possible to remember the keys to survival: Work, keep working, don't feel sorry for yourself, make another phone call, eat your ego and do what needs doing and pray a lot for help from powers you don't even necessarily believe in.
The kids are the thing, right? You and me can live in a swamp and be happy. That's not the issue. The issue is that the kids can go to the doctor when they need to, can have a good birthday and a decent Christmas. Have some good used clothes to wear, and a pair of shoes that don't hurt their feet. And maybe a dental visit every two or three years. Not too much, but enough.
All that said, even when things are good, the angels are reminding me not to get cocky. That's what reminded me of Dylan's ageless song, Rainy Day Women #12 and 35, from which this piece got its title.
Cause now that I've got bills paid, now that I've got three magazines oweing me for stories I've already written and a trip to Peru next week that might net me another grand, even after all my expenses, in other words, now that I'm a freaking pig with shrimp on the stove, today the lawnmower belt broke on one mower, then the blade broke on the other. Then my ex's car broke down when a hose burst and the engine overheated, tossing a rod. Then the little roof leak dropped a 4 X 6 foot section of ceiling down on the computer. And the puppy needed a parvo shot. And then I gritted my teeth and broke a crown.
So there goes more money than I have.
So it's a good reminder that you shouldn't get cocky.
Cause even when you're working hard and thinking things are going good, the ceiling might fall on your head.
And it did.
Just another wake up call from the angels.
Time to go fix at least one of the lawn mowers.
"They'll stone you when you're trying to be so good. They'll stone you just like they said they would. They'll stone you when you are young and able. They'll stone you when you're sitting at the table. But I would not be so all alone....everybody must get stoned...."
Thanks Mr. Dylan.

Monday, April 09, 2007

My Daughter Is 10 Today

April 9, 2007, and my daughter Madeleina turned 10 today. Or, as she put it, "I'm double-digits, dad."
Anyone who has ever been a father or mother will attest that the time flies. I mean flies. It wasn't two weeks ago--it seems--that I was downstairs from our 90th street and 3rd Ave apartment in New York City, having a drink with a friend at Richters at about 11 PM when Chepa called on the house phone to say her water broke and I should get her to the hospital, quickly.
I raced upstairs while pals at the joint hailed and held a cab, got Chepa downstairs and we were off to Lenox Hill Hospital.
Inside we went to Maternity and she was given a bed. Someone called her doctor.
The room was not well lit, just a sort of waiting room. Chepa was having contractions but they were a ways apart. I thought she might be hungry so excused myself and went to the corner and got her a couple of cheeseburgers. When I got back, probably 10 minutes, you could just see the crown of our baby's head beginning to make it's move.
The doc arrived and we waited as the contractions got closer. By about 2 AM it was push time and by about 2:15 or so she started to emerge. The doc told me to reach down there and pull her out. I said not a chance. He said he was drunk and was in no shape to do it. (I think he was just lying to force me to get my hands dirty.) So I did it. I got her out a very little at a time because I didn't want to pull anything too hard. And as she came out I expected her to be looking at the floor: To my surprise she was looking straight up at me. Halfway out and her eyes were open and looking right at me, through me, and she said, as clearly as if you said it to me today: "hep...hep...hep..." and I swear I know she was trying to say "Help. Help. Help."
And I started to cry because I knew what she wanted. She wanted to go back inside. Wanted to say she'd made a mistake in deciding to leave spirit and take on flesh for a lifetime. And now that she felt her first air, felt her first human contact, saw those bright cold lights and heard us talking she wanted no part of it. But it was too late, of course. So I just cried and told her I was sorry but that we'd try to make it a pretty good life for her.
And then we got her all the way out and the doctor took her and the nurse handed me scissors and I cut the cord and Chepa was crying/laughing on the bed and I was told to let Chepa kiss her for a minute, then carry her to the tray with the heat lamp for jaundice. And I swear that 20 foot walk carrying that absilutely see-through angel was the hardest walk of my life. The floor was covered in cables and I didn't think I could step over them.
I did and didn't drop her.
And she turned 10 today and I know I've made a million mistakes, yelled at her, been a jerk over the years. All mixed in with a lot of love, but so far from perfect as a dad it's scary. And I promised her a pretty good life and I don't know if I've given that.
But she's still my angel and she turned 10 at about 3:09 last night.
It still feels like just two weeks ago to me.
I love you, Madeleina. Thanks for being my kid.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

When You're 50 and Out of Work

When you're 50 or so and out of work it's a scary thing. It's not something you think will happen to you, and then, when it does, it's a very difficult thing to get out of.
When I was planning the move--though hastily, since it was for family reasons--from New York to Texas five years ago, I knew I'd be giving up my job as Senior Editor for High Times. But I thought I had a nice deal where I'd still be running the news on the web which was getting a lot of play then for HT. I had a great great stable of Drug War Journalists (Bill Weinberg, Steve Wishnia, Preston Peet, Silja Talvi, Chesley Hicks, Michael Simmons) producing material. So I thought I'd have that going while I reinvented myself as a freelancer. I also thought I'd be able to sell a column to some of the alternatives around the country--something called Drug War Follies--that would bring in regular money and could be written from anywhere. I even had an agent working at selling that for me. I figured those gigs would bring in a couple of thousand a month--enough to pay the mortgage and all bills anyway--so that I'd just have to come up with enough freelance work to buy food and keep my kids in clothes.
I didn't have much savings because that had all been spent on the downpayment on this beautiful $80 grand house and the actual move--a cross country drive in a U-Haul filled to the brim, accompanied by my son Italo and my friend Lynn--and the three thousand dollar pick up truck--a 1994 Ford Ranger, extended cab in bright blue-green--I bought when we got here.
I mean, there was no money for a riding mower so we just bought an electric pushs mower and did the acre and a half every couple of weeks that way. No money for a satellite tv thing so we settled for the two English and two Spanish channels we almost got with regular tv.
And we ate lots of roast chicken and rice or eggs and rice.
No big deal. I worked myself hard the first month, knowing I'd be selling that column and needing some pieces in the bank on that, so to speak. And I worked my fingers off on the High Times web.
Then I sent High Times the bill for the first month: $2200. They didn't respond. I called and was asked who had said I'd still be doing the web news work. I told them the new publisher had said to keep doing what I was doing and that meant the web. I was told that wasn't the case and that I should immediately stop doing what I was doing and "oh, by the way, we'll try to get you $700 on that first bill but forget anything more, okay? We're not paying."
That Stunk with a capital S.
I applied for unemployment and was turned down because I quit voluntarily.
Then the agent called: No interest in the column. Too depressing, even for the alternatives.
That stunk.
And then the story ideas I'd sent out to several magazine editors began coming back: "Not doing this type of story right now, Pete. Sorry." "That editor is no longer with us. Good luck." "Too expensive a concept."
And the jobs I did get weren't great or had bad endings. I sold a story to a men's mag and the editor got fired before it went to print. New editor was changing the format to exclude serious journalism. I sold a story to Parade Magazine about a Tree Swing in the Yard and that editor got fired. No pay.
Money was out. I borrowed from friends who didn't have it. I applied for straight jobs: the Walmart Distribution Center, the Alcon can factory, the Greenbay Packing Company, a sheetrock factory. Some days I applied to 10 places. None of them needed me. They needed men, they just didn't need 50-year-old guys from New York who were journalists and who were going to quit the moment they got a journalism gig.
So I began lying on the forms, claiming I'd been a factory worker my whole life. Barely finished high school.
No go. In those cases where I got to be interviewed, I lost the jobs when I didn't have the truck or heavy machinery licenses, or when they heard the New York accent and knew I hadn't really been working in sweatshops there.
I borrowed more money. I had the mortgage company starting to take the house six months after we moved in.
I caught a break and got a call from the National Inquirer to investigate a missing girl and was desperate enough to ask the editor to pay up front for a couple of weeks work: He had the money in my account in the morning and saved the house. I got three weeks work out of them at a grand a week, and then they paid me an extra grand by mistake and I was so broke I apologized to the heavens and kept the money. Stole it.
I sold my car's title to a loan company for two grand, knowing I'd have to pay back six grand on the loan by the time it was done.
I pawned my guitar and an old pocket watch from my grandpa for $95 bucks to buy food one weekend.
I went to work at the day labor center. Half the guys there--about 70 a day--were in the same boat as me: Factory or job shut down. Still raising kids. How to keep it all together. Some of the others were drunks or delelicts, a few were genuine hobos, some were running from child support and maybe 20 were illegal Mexicans. They always got the work. One guy explained it to me this way: "Man, if you're white or black, these guys figure you got a problem. You messed up or you're a fuck up. But the Mex kids, they're just hard working immigrants who are going to give the best damned work they got for the 5 bucks an hour they're paying."
In 31 days I got to water lawns three days at an apartment complex and earned a total of $161.50. But it put food on the table for a week.
My friend Lynn bailed me out the next time the bank started foreclosing.
And then a trip to Peru came together and I made a few bucks off that. And then the local alternative bought a cover story from me and then began assigning more. And then the tax-credit thing happened and suddenly when I did my taxes for 2003--where I earned 5 grand or something all told--the government gave me a check for 4 grand. I thought there was a mistake but they said no: that was like a one-time a year welfare check for poor people like me raising three kids on five grand a year.
And then Marc Emery at Cannabis Culture called and asked for a cover story, and then Skunk Magazine called and asked if I'd do a regular column for them. And then more trips to the Amazon with larger groups.
And this year, finally, with help from all the work and my guardian angels sending me little chunks of money from nowhere (an aunt we all loved died and left me several thousand; the government needs to widen the road in front of my house and paid a couple of grand for a sliver of my yard). And my little green truck with 270,000 miles still runs good. So suddenly, after four years, we got caught up and if I keep working hard and don't mess up or get cocky, maybe things will keep happening to keep paying the bills till the kids are all grown up.
What a feeling, though, when you can't pay them. Not for yourself. For the family. You feel like such a failure, so freaking impotent. Heck, if they don't even want you for day-fucking-labor crews holding 'slow' signs on the highway, what good are you?
And a friend of mine is now in the same boat. Microbiologist who has been working for a large midwestern city for all his life and two months ago his job disappears. At first he thought it was like a vacation: He had a few bucks saved; his house and car paid for, only one kid. But now it's two months and that money is getting gone fast. And his kid still needs to eat. And the government still wants their taxes on that house. He said he's been applying for factory and guard jobs. No luck. They can tell he's too educated to stay long. He told me yesterday he's begun lying on the resume, claiming he only finished high school. I know from experience that's not going to work for him either.
He's not a quitter and if he can hang on, someone is going to need his skills. But I don't envy him at the moment.
Being 50 and out of work is one scary time.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Types of Rain in Northwest Amazonia

It rains so much in northwest Amazonia that the people have names for the different types. My mother-in-law, Lydia Cahuaza, two generations out of the woods--she always explained she wasn't an Indian by saying 'My mother wore shoes, my grandmother wore shoes', not realizing that only Indigenous people used that phrase to prove they were city folk--had names for six types of rain. I can only remember four.
You have Tempesto, which is like a devil rain, which comes in sheets and is accompanied by crazy strong winds from all directions, tearing at the canopy and bringing down great tree-tops in the forest while it tears the rooves off homes in the city.
You have the Borracho, the Drunken Father rain, which is full of lightning and thunder and hard driving rain that comes and goes in just a few minutes. It's like a drunk dad who comes home and yells at the kids and crashes into things, knocking them over, but the kids pay him no mind because they know he'll fall asleep in just a minute or two.
You have the Lluvia Loca, the crazy girl rain, which starts, stops, starts again, stops again. It's like a love crazy teenaged girl who falls in love with one boy, and then quickly falls out of love with him and into love with another, and so on. She just can't make up her mind.
And then you have the Warmi Lluvia, the Bitchy Woman rain. That's a rain that falls lightly but falls all day and night, like a woman bitching at you, picking, picking, picking at you until she drives you crazy.
Ain't that cool.
I miss you Lydia.

Whether Curanderos Can Affect Weather

Someone recently asked whether curanderos in the Amazon could affect weather conditions. I don't know about making snow or melting ice and things like that, but I do know, having seen it countless times, that some of them certainly could/can affect rain clouds.
I think it's fairly standard among curanderos in the Amazon region that there is a connection with all things, clouds among them. In my experience, though, they don't generally call for rain, but prohibit rain from falling where they don't want it. Prohibit is too strong: They move the clouds out of the range of where they don't want it.
Anyone who ever traveled in a peque-peque with Julio with me will know that when storm clouds came up he'd blow them away because he really didn't like being on the river and being rained on. It didn't always work but it worked so often that it was much more than uncanny.
Still, Julio was nothing compared to Pablo, the Matses headman on the Rio Galvez. Pablo really didn't like his pueblo to get rained on. His primary wife, Ma-Shu spent time every day keeping every blade of grass out of the common area of the village and the rain would, of course, make it sprout again. So when Pablo was in the village and rains would come, he's take out his nu-nu and blow it to the four corners of the village: It never ceased to amaze me to watch the rain fall--often torrential rain-- on all sides of the village with none falling in the village itself.
Neither Pablo nor Julio thought this was a big deal and their basic lesson on doing it yourself (myself) was simply to make your arm or breath very very long and go up to the clouds and push them aside.
So if the initial question had to do with whether curanderos in Amazonia could affect weather, I think the answer is yes. Whether they could make rain as some of the Plain's indians could and can, I don't know. In Amazonia the point is generally to make it quit, not make it happen.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Something to Be Careful of...

So I was thinking: if people who spend too much time writing on the computer get carpel tunnel syndrome, then people who spend too much time watching porn probably get carnal tuggel syndrome, right?

Every Once in a While It's Just Perfect

Yesterday I felt like a lead weight was hanging from my neck. I got up at 5 AM, as per normal, and by 9 hadn't accomplished anything. I mean anything. Couldn't get myself to do the dishes from Friday night, couldn't handle the trash, the growing pile of clothes in front of the washing machine. By noon it was no better. There was a moment of motion in the early afternoon when I took my daughter Madeleina to a party, then continued on to buy food for the house and a couple of miniature Jim Beam's for me, but it didn't last long. Just felt slow, old and weak. Hated myself but couldn't break out. Had a few interviews to do for a story on the recent paraphernalia busts in the US and Canada but couldn't even get those done.
And what I did do was done with no joy, no life, no wonder.
And then there is today.
Whole different ball game.
Got up, made my coffee and began to wash, dry and fold two loads of laundry. While that was happening I scrubbed the dishes from last night's meal, cleaned the kitchen, fed the dogs, cat and goats, took a walk in the perfect sun out across the creek in our back yard. Listened to the cardinals that are waiting for their eggs to hatch, put some bird food in the feeders, then came in and made breakfast for Madeleina, her sleep-over friend Shelby and my son Italo: Fresh strawberry, banana, orange juice mix with just a touch of milk; some bacon and scrambled eggs, toasted bagels with no-fat cream cheese (you got to draw the line somewhere, eh?). Read three newspapers on the net, Bill Weinberg's fantastic account of the life and death of Tom Forcade (, fixed the drain in the bathroom sink, picked up in the living room and did all of it with absolute and sweet joy.
And it's still not noon.
Man, I love days that start this way. I need them. I feel like me today, a pumped up dad who handles his responsibilities effortlessly, without griping.
So what happened yesterday?
Who knows.
But I'm gonna tell you, I'm glad it's today today.
Maybe it's just cause it's April and I get to go to the Amazon in two weeks for a couple of weeks. Get back down to the thick thick green. A day like today I wish I was going for a major expedition, setting off into that river system on my boat, all loaded up with a month worth of supplies, headed off to start a new adventure.
Won't happen this trip. But today, it sure feels like it could.