Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Problem with Getting the Lawn Done

The problem with getting the lawn done--except for the couple of patches we call "the wild places" because I'm too lazy to get in there and cut them--is that it leaves you open for other work. Like yesterday, with my next cover story a week away and only a column to write this weekend, I suddenly found myself renting that rug shampooing machine I've been thinking about. Of course to shampoo the rugs you have to get everything but the piano and big desk off the floors, and if you're gonna do the room where Yelena stayed and her dog pee'd some, Italo's old room, well, I figured I might as well attack the closet floor there too....And then of course, you can't shampoo until you've vacuumed three or four times, and with this being Boots' the Wonderdog's serious shedding season, that meant not just emptying out the plastic container on the vacuum every five minutes but having to wash the filter a coule of times as well.....See where this goes? There's a reason we put off work. It's because it's never a job, it's a million jobs to get ready for the job. And those are such pain in the neck jobs that it seems easier to avoid them than attack them. I mean, unless you happen to be wealthy and can hire someone to do them for you.
    So yes, Madeleina and I picked everything off the floor in four rooms. Then I attacked the floor of Italo's closet and got rid of a large garbage bag of old magazines and dirty sox and such, while at the same time found a brand new pair of rollerblades I'm sure he's forgotten about. And then we vacuumed and vacuumed and vacuumed some more and then hit the carpets with the heavy machine and by five in the afternoon were done.
   But it was still light out, and once you start, it's hard to stop, eh? So I decided I'd better paint my office. Of course, to do that required taking down 30 pieces of art and cabinets and six shelves holding hundreds of artifacts from Peru--and so that's what I'm looking at today. Art is down. Paint and supplies are here. Some furniture is in the kitchen, some on the front porch. Man, I know we'll get it and it will be fresh in here for another year...but if I do get it, I hope it's getting dark, because if there's still any light, I might find myself thinking that it would only take a little while to do the laundry room...which would be a mistake. I should never get so caught up with work that I'm able to get there...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

My Hands are Green and Wrinkled

My hands are green and wrinkled. I just used soap to try to get them clean.
Didn't work.
They're not green and wrinkled from greed and counting money,
They're green and wrinkled from mowing lawn and emptying the mower's bag and pulling weeds and there are a thousand spines in my hands and my legs
Are covered in fire ant bites.
I worked this morning from 5 AM, worked the keyboard, read the papers, answered letters,
Solved problems, or tried to, for perfect strangers.
By noon I'd had enough of it and stepped outside to the acre-and-a-half that needed mowing badly and  the electric push mower and did the work.
At two I did an interview for nearly three hours with a fascinating person who's subject of a new story but
Hated being inside while a perfect day was coming and going.
So I did what I could for my money and to change the world, then promised more talk tomorrow and disappeared to buy the cats and dogs and birds and me some food.
And reappeared to the desperate need to mow more lawn, to pull more weeds, to
See my hands wrinkled and green. To get more spines from the angry weeds and stings from the fire ants I molested.
I did, I do, I'm happy.
I love the visceral.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Yelena Blumenau, Rest in Peace

Yelena was my late friend Daniel Blumenau's wife. I knew Daniel for years and have written about him previously. When I was in college and for some years after that, Daniel would hire his brother/my friend Phil and me to come in to do the last work at building jobs he had. And he always had interesting  building jobs: Jimi Hendrix' Electric Ladyland, Island Records' Carnegie Hall offices and their Grove Street town house, Oscar De La Renta's east side townhouse, that sort of thing.
    Well, we stayed in touch about once a year--he'd call to remind me that Phil's birthday was coming up--until about 10 years ago. Then nothing, but that was fine too. Until about two years ago, when he called to say his wife--a woman named Yelena whom I'd never met--was terminally ill with cancer and he wondered if I had any medicines from the jungle that might help her into remission. As it was, he said, the doctors only expected her to live another six weeks.
    I immediately sent off some Una de Gato--fresh vine, Cat's Claw in English--with directions on how to make it. Used forever in Peru and other parts of the Amazon basin for everything from bursitis to immune deficiency disorders, it's currently suggested as an adjunct medicine here in the US by most cancer and AIDS hospitals because of its fantastic ability to increase the T-cell count, bolstering immunity. (There's more to it, but not relevant to this story.)
    Yelena took to it fantastically, and in a matter of weeks was up and about. Unfortunately, a couple of months after Dan got in touch with me he had a massive heart attack and died. (Rest in Peace, Daniel B.)
    But Yelena, though crushed by his passing, had gotten the urge to stay alive and got in touch with me about going on one of my Jungle Intensive courses to the Amazon. I tried to talk her out of it, but when she insisted, I said okay. And so, with a large discount, she came.
    The other guests on the trip urged me not to take her out to the jungle because they thought she was too weak and wouldn't make it. I thought her spirit looked fine, and knew that my late teacher Julio's daughter Lady would be on the trip and be able to collect good medicinal plants for her--so off we all went.
    She was a delight. Started every darned sentence with "Darling..." and ended them all with "you're the best." She would walk down from her sleeping quarters to the river's edge (a small tributary of the Amazon) to bathe wearing a tiny bikini and six inch spikes. I urged her to wear the jungle boots I provided but she said they didn't make her feel elegant. So she fell, and fell, and fell. Spikes are not jungle appropriate. I let her fall until she finally switched to the boots.
    And she did everything asked of her in the jungle except, I think, one longish hike that she wasn't strong enough to make. If you saw her out there you would never have believed she was supposed to die months earlier. And when we got out of the jungle, Lady had indeed collected and prepared some medicines specific to Yelena's needs.
    And she had such a good time that she returned for the next Jungle Intensive some months later. Again, she was great and I was so proud of her.
    A couple of months later she visited my home--along with several other people who'd been on recent trips with me--for a long weekend of good food, good company and good medicine.
    Months, perhaps a year, passed, and we stayed in touch now and then, me just checking in and making sure she was making and drinking her Una de Gato and the medicines Lady gave her. She was.
    In December, however, she called to let me know she was dying. She was scared. She was having trouble going up and down the steps of the sailboat that Daniel had bought her and on which they traveled and lived for several years. She asked if she could come to my house for a little while just to be  in a different space and around my family--and particularly Madeleina--whom she'd grown immensely fond of. I was busy at the time but told her she was more than welcome to come after I got home from Peru in late February.
    And she did. But the woman who walked through the door at 3 AM (Chepa and her boyfriend Troy did the honors of the airport run) was not the woman I'd previously seen. She was very thin, very weak and having difficulty walking.
    But she was still lively and still full of "Darling's and you're the bests," and after a few days here she was gaining a little weight and asking me to go get pizza and ice cream and watching movies with Madeleina and I and even helped out in the garden now and then, and would take a chair out sometimes to sit in the sun in the back yard.
    Chepa gave her massages when she hurt--and she hurt a bit for a while as she came in using four to six Oxycodone daily and ran out after about two weeks--cold turkey with advanced cancer is not recommended or easy.
    And then, one night, she fell when she tripped on the mattress that was on the floor of the room she was using. And that was the beginning of a downward spiral. In the morning as she was explaining how she'd fallen, she and I both noticed that her stomach seemed to be noticeably swollen. I wanted to take her to a doctor but ran into red tape: As she had Medicaid in Florida, she couldn't be seen in Texas. I told doctors that we'd pay cash and they told us no, it was illegal to take cash for a visit from someone who had Medicaid, even if that was in a different state.
    It was an impossible bureaucratic hurtle, with the only solution being an emergency room, which she absolutely refused.
    Fortunately, after staying with us for a month, Medicare kicked in and the day it did we were at the cancer ward of a good local hospital. By that time she was considerably swollen, not just her stomach but her legs and feet. She was having more difficulty walking.
    The doctor at the hospital suggested--bluntly--that she would be dead in two to three weeks, and suggested she move into hospice care. She said no, she could still bathe herself and wouldn't do it. So the doctor suggested hospice care at my house. Again she refused. We left after getting a script for a pain killer much lighter than Oxycodone and a water pill to help her eliminate some of the excessive water she was carrying.
    The next couple of weeks got very difficult. As she went downhill, she became shrill. She would come into my room or go into Madeleina's room at 2 AM demanding more pain killers or that we make her hot chocolate--but in such a shrill way that it was difficult to maintain a loving demeanor. Or she would go after the pills herself, or make her own tea and leave the stove on under the empty pot. She had me buy clothes that she refused to wear, but also refused to go shopping for them with me. She had to be cajoled into leaving her room for lunch or a little walk. She was still eating well--which I took as a good sign--with two eggs or an omelete with cheese bread on the side daily, then a chicken drumstick for lunch and a small dinner of scallops and rice or swordfish. And she loved sushi. And a cup of hot chocolate at night.
    I was hoping she'd hit bottom and would start to get better, but when she didn't, we went back to the cancer center, two or three times. Each time they'd tell her they could give her stronger pain killers (she didn't want them because they made her feel foggy), hospice care or a new round of chemo. When she'd refuse those things, the doctor or nurse practitioner would ask "Then why did you come back? You know that's what we have to offer. There is nothing else."
   She had a dream of going to the MD Anderson cancer unit in Houston, but that was dashed when they told me they had no live in program: She'd get treatment, then go home. In Yelena's case that would mean getting an efficience apartment in Houston, because my home is about eight hours away and I simply couldn't move to Houston, even for a short period of time.
    A week ago Saturday, about 10 days ago, she called me into her room and told me she wanted to return to Florida. I will admit to a great feeling of relief when she said that, as what I was putting Madeleina through--and it was just about two months by then--was not fair.
    I didn't say okay. I told her that if she was serious she should ask me the following day and I'd get the ticket for her--and it was her money for these things, not mine, just to be clear. Then I called the airline and asked what the procedure was for a very ill but non-contagious person. They told me just to get her to the airport and someone would have a wheelchair and get her onto the plane and someone else would be waiting to get her off at the other end.
   The next day Yelena asked again--demanded shrilly if you want the truth--and I bought her a ticket for Monday afternoon.
   Monday was a long long day. Whether it was physical, emotional or what have you, that morning, while packing her things, she fell. And fell again. She couldn't walk to the bathroom or get her pants down when I got her there. When she was finished her business she told me to leave so that she could brush her teeth. I stepped out of the bathroom and heard a boom as she fell back against the tile wall. I called Chepa and asked her to get over as quickly as she could because I didn't think I was going to make it alone. Chepa came and we got her into my truck and Chepa wished her a good flight. I got her to the airport and the wheel chair and got her and her dog Stella booked and to the boarding line, where I kissed her and told her I was sorry that the medicines I had had not gotten her better. "They will, don't worry," she said. It was the first cheerful thing she'd said in a week.
    And then I left.
    I felt such a mixture of guilt for failing, guilt for being thrilled that she was gone, guilt at what I'd put Madeleina through that it nearly crushed me with its weight. And I prayed that she would make it home safely and that the miracle would happen.
   It didn't. She died three or four days after returning to Florida.
   I hope that her transition to the next life, next realm, next whatever awaits is a good one, one without physical constraints or pain or frustration or anger over getting ill. I hope that her spirit winds up somewhere wonderful. Have a good trip, Yelena. Your work here is finished. Rest in Peace.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Tough to Please My Daughter Madeleina

So Monday night we had about 4 ounces of Chilean Sea Bass ($23.99 a pound) each, with two sea scallops ($16.95 a pound, which is about 7-8 scallops) and two #6-10 shrimp (just 13.99 a pound, with four shrimp costing $9) on a bed of spinach sauteed with garlic/olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
   On Tuesday I made a rack of ribs with thin sliced new potatoes cooked in chicken broth and served with yellow squash and zuccini.
   On Wednesday I made sweet and hot sausage, sliced, sauteed, cooked with red pepper, onion, garlic, scallions and organic tomatoes over Basmati rice. Served with watermelon.
   On Thursday I stuffed Hatch Peppers with chopped chuck and the left over meat from the ribs and sausage, sauteed with garlic, olive oil, yellow rice, four kinds of hot peppers, onions, fresh sweet peppers and cilantro. I served that with a couple of sushi rolls I bought at a good sushi place.
   So tonight I have an organic chicken roasting with red potatoes, organic baby carrots, onion, celery and garlic in olive oil. Orange juice from fresh oranges sprayed over the dish while in the oven. Being served with a plain homemade gravy. And served with pineapple for dessert.
   So what does Madeleina say?
  "Hey dad! Why don't you ever make brisket? You never make brisket! You don't know how to cook, do you? My uncle Bruce makes great brisket! So make some, okay? Do your job and start cooking real food!"
    Okay, I'm still gonna serve her, but I'm not sure I'm gonna serve with all the love I had before she said that.....I'm a long way from perfect, eh?

One More on the Ayahuasca Dieta, then I'll Shut Up

I posted my previous post on a board I occasionally visit, and someone came back with the question of: If what I said about ayahuasca dietas being a recent invention by gringos, then how come everyone who offers ayahuasca also offers the dieta. This was my response:

I think that both the indigenous and non-indigenous in the Peruvian Amazon have traditionally lived primarily on a diet of fish and platanos--with some exceptions, like the Matses and some other groups who primarily ate meat, rather than fish. So I think if a Westerner found a curandero and had not brought his/her own food supply, that they'd soon find themselves eating fish and platano most meals. I just think that's one of the basic jungle diets. I think--and it's only me thinking here--that food restrictions come when new foods are introduced: if a person lived in an area where there were no hot peppers, for instance, but then went to a town where there was a jar of hot peppers in in lime or sidra on the table and then ate a spoonful, well, the shock of the heat and the burning of their mouth might make that person immediately swear off peppers and have them telling their friends and family not to eat them either. With something like pork, well, if it's not prepared well you can get awfully sick from it--and with no refrigeration it's easy to get sick on pig in the jungle. So I think that's another that's pretty naturally proscribed in traditional settings where ayahuasca was served.
   I think the answer to your question though, really lies more in the boom of ayahuasca drinking that's gone on over the last 10-12 years in Peru. When Francisco Montes opened Sachamama in about 1993--the first real ayahuasca center, I believe--he never talked--to me at least--about dieta. Out at his place we'd eat fruit and fish; when he came to Iquitos he'd eat ceviche with me or have a soda with lots of sugar. But by about 2003 or 2004, he'd built several tambos on his place specifically for dietaros--people on the ayahuasca diet--and was serving a pretty strict routine of boiled fish and platanos or rice. Some of those people who spent time with Francisco went on to open their own retreats, and they used the dieta as well. Then someone like Gerald at the Yellow Rose, for a joke, put up a sign that said he served The Ayahuasca Diet: No salt, no oil, no suger, no SEX! Well, at first it was a joke, but when people started ordering it, he started to make it, which made other restaurants follow suit--so that now all of the restaurants that serve gringos provide the ayahuasca diet. (As a side and snide comment I will add that I've talked with some of the retreat owners who relish the fact that by serving just cucumbers, fruit and some boiled fish and plantains they save a boatload of money.)
    So I think the dieta just sort of caught on, and that it's become a badge of courage for a lot of people. When I'm in Iquitos and people stop to talk with me, an awful lot of them tell me how many times they have had ayahuasca and how many weeks they've lived the dieta. And that's fine for them--just not something that came up in the old days when I started drinking ayahuasca.
    When it comes to my guests, I offer a lot of really good food. Lots of veggies, lots of fruit, beans daily, yucca, plantain, rice, and just a bit of chicken and fish. Like Moises, I don't want them heavy with sugar, I don't want them to have sour stomachs--though I do use tomatoes, but cooked or in lime juice--don't serve pork or red meat (no way to keep it fresh) and forbid my team from killing monkeys or birds to eat. I like them to have plenty of energy, but like it to be clean--so in my own way I sort of impose a diet on them, though they hardly think it is one when they're eating. On ceremony day though, one meal at breakfast and then nothing else till after ceremony--when they drink I want them puking up the bile of their lives, not hard-boiled eggs.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Another Person Asked Me About Dietas with Ayahuasca

So another person asked me about dietas and ayahuasca--you know, what's proscribed in order to get to the proper state to drink the sacred medicine. And once again I found myself poo-pooing the whole freaking idea. So for those of you who have not heard it, here's my rant.

Dear X: No, I have never done the dietas. I never heard of them before 2001, which was about 17 years after I started drinking ayahuasca. I did diet, but I didn't know it was for ayahuasca: Moises never let me eat tomatoes in Iquitos before one of our hikes. Said they were bad for the stomach: Too sour. He never let me eat pork either, because it too was sour. And he said sugar made you slow for hiking and you needed to be fast for hiking, not slow. And then we'd walk six or eight days in the jungle and only eat plants or a bird or monkey we came on. 
   In terms of the dieta that people talk about, I have to laugh. If people knew Peru as it really is, they'd know that if you grow hot peppers, you grow them for sale, not to eat. And if you live on a river where they don't grow and you go to buy them, well, they're very expensive--completely unaffordable. So no, most people don't eat hot peppers.
   If you want salt, it's for preserving food, not for eating. Peruvians in the jungle, until 10 years ago when cheap Chinese motors were introduced, had to canoe 8-10 hours to any place that might have salt. You bought it to preserve fish you were going to sell, not for eating--and since you didn't grow up with it, you didn't miss it.
   No pork: Well, if you raise pigs for sale, or just for pets, you know darned well that you can't take a pork chop without killing the pig. And no one in town--again, at least 8-10 hours from where you live, by canoe--would buy a dead pig. You bring the pig in live and draw a crowd, then kill it in front of everyone. People buy pieces of the dead animal while it's eviscerated stomach cavity is still steaming. So no, no pork. But remember that wild boar is okay to eat on an ayahuasca dieta--and wild boar is the same as pork. So it's not what people think when they talk dietas at all.
    No sex. Ha! Most curanderos I have known have had multiple wives and multiple girlfriends and they love sex, whether they are 30 or 70. Julio's youngest daughter came when he was about 71 or so.
   No coffee: Julio always had a big cup of coffee with cream and lots of sugar just before ceremony--along with a great big meal loaded with the hot charapita peppers in lime that I would bring. Why? Because he'd been tending a fire while cooking ayahuasca for 10-12 hours and was hungry and loved the treat of peppers and lime and needed coffee to stay awake during ceremony.
   I contend that all these rules are made up or misinterpreted by people who don't know shit. They ask a guy who lives on a river where no hot peppers grow if he eats hot peppers before ayahuasca and he says "no", and the idiot recording him then says "On an ayahuasca diet, you don't eat hot peppers." Freaking crazy. 
   Now, what I was taught was that if you wanted to learn a plant, you went out and sat with it. You slept with your arms around it. And you quickly learned that there were stinging ants protecting it and they made it impossible to sleep with your arms around it. And if you got past the stinging ants, there were wasps on the second or third night, and maybe tarantulas/scorpions on vampire bats coming to protect that tree on the fourth night. And then maybe a couple of constrictor snakes that lived up there who came down to kill you after a week.
   And if you got past all of that, well, then the plant/tree would be more than willing to treat you as an equal and teach you things. 
   That's a tough dieta. Eating platano and fish--the favorite food of people in the Amazon--may sound tough to us Westerners, but to a person from northwestern Amazonia, well, that's like telling a fat school kid that the only think he can eat is McDonalds and ice cream. It's not a punishment or a dieta, it's a freaking favorite.
   That's my take on dietas.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Nice Little Surprise

Well, I just got a nice little surprise. I was looking at booking my ticket to Peru--and Madeleina's too if she wants to join me and I hope she does because she is the best company for both the guests and me that you can imagine!--and went to the American site. And guess what? They are now flying direct from DFW to Lima. They will still make me--us--come back via the police state that is Miami International Customs, but going will be direct. They used to fly direct to Lima and back to Dallas, but cut that out some years ago. Which made the trip very long: I generally get up and am out of the house by 9 AM, at the DFW airport by 10, on a flight to Miami by 11, arrive at 2:30, then wait till the 4:40 flight to Lima, which came in at 11 PM. And then the seven hour wait at the Lima airport for the flight to Iquitos at 6 AM, which arrives about 8 AM. So that's a 24 hour hell and I always arrive tired, short-tempered and such. This new flight will have me leaving my house at 3 PM, getting to the airport by 4 PM and catching a 5:55 flight to Lima that gets in a 1 AM. Through Customs in Lima by 2 AM, there will just be a four hour wait for the Iqutos flight. So it will be a full six hours shorter. That may not seem like a lot to some people, but trust me, when you're traveling with a ton of stuff--the med kit, my daughter and so forth, there is a big difference between 9 AM and 3 PM in terms of how cranky you'll be when you finally arrive in Iquitos.
    Alright, I'll admit that getting excited over that is probably an indication that I don't have much of a life. Ok, you got me.
    I still got that direct flight. Hooray! That's living, baby!