Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Little White Dots

The men of the Ngabere Comarca, a Panama reserve for an indigenous people, are strong, handsome, and cheerful. Compact as welter weight fighters, they incessantly carry loads of rice, beans, crops, and water up the trails and roads that connect the village like capillaries of the circulatory system. They are lean and weathered and do not suffer fools, complaint, or laziness. They talk to me about water, droughts, wind, seasons, crops, families, and money. They like a good joke at my expense, my ignorance of tying knots on a loaded pack horse. Just what good are you their looks say. The boys want to know how many push ups I can do, how fast I can carry a seven gallon water jug up the ridge below the house. I help them with language homework using the expensive headlamp I brought with me. I see them puzzle over the strange concepts of nouns, verbs, personal pronouns, temporal pronouns: bizarre and irrelevant homework that pushes them to quit school so their time can be better spent clearing "monte" for the family crops. I invite one of them to join us for dinner for his 15th birthday. He never shows. When we walk down the trail to the pools deep in the quebrada to swim and cool off, I see that they have lines of white dots punctuating their backbones. The dots look like little stars set in the dark umber of their skin. I wonder if they are the result of some bite or condition and ask about them. The older boys go silent, but "Veijo," a seven year old, tells me in a matter-of-fact frankness that they the scars left after burns with the sharp end of a red-hot nail. The burns are the consequence of laziness. Men have no room in their days for laziness. Boys need to learn that early on. I think about that as we scramble down to the pool where we will play, for a few moments, after a day swinging a machete, avoiding snakes.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Ojo

"No hay agua," the old man insisted. He stood facing Sean wearing the ubiquitous rubber boots, threadbare dark pants, torn T shirt with corporate logos, and baseball cap given by the latest political candidate.

"No hay agua," he repeated. There isn't any water.

If he was right, the project was in jeopardy. The project is Sean's Peace Corps assignment to help the Ngabere (pronounced NO-bay) community of Cerro Pita, in the Panamanian province of Chiriqui, get an aqueduct that would supply 170 residents with clean water. It was an ambitious undertaking, given the terrain, the lack of money, materials, and lack of water in the dry season, and, more importantly, the ongoing drought.

Sean assured the man that he was going up the ojo, or spring, in question to measure the flow. Sean is lanky and sun-toasted. He has thinned down from the slender, muscled body he had as a college student in San Diego. His hair is still light, but losing some of the baby whiteness he kept into his twenties. His language mixes Spanish with Ngabere, and doing so seems to calm the old man, who is a full foot shorter than Sean. His machete is at his side and his eyes are black. His skin is dusty but as dark as burnt umber. His hands are the thick hands of a man who has worked with his back for his entire life.

He promises to come by and talk later before giving all of us a "ha TWAY dah" or see you later. We continue out walk up the road, toward the ojo that Sean hopes will feed the aqueduct. Our progress is slowed by "pasearing," or sitting and chatting with the gente, the people. It is Sean's job to build community and trust. He has to be highly visible to the many families that line the road running through the community of Cerro Pita. Peace Corps work organizes and connects communities with projects as much as it tries to do the actual construction. Sean is supposed to leave the community stronger and more empowered, not just to finish an aqueduct.

Cerro Pita, like much of Central America, is the third year of a catastrophic drought. The "sequia" has dried up many of the ojos and made the slash and burn subsistence farming of Cerro Pita more difficult, less productive. Hunger is common in the hard times.

The Ngabere live in the highlands of the comarca because they were forced off the more fertile land near the coast by banana plantation owners. The politics have been hard on the Ngabere, their history having much in common with indigenous people world-wide. They live and die by the weather and constant labor. Water. Food. Shelter. The three horses of survival consume the hours. 

Water is an issue. Always. Families have to haul water for drinking and cleaning. There is water running in the deep quebradas, or canyons, but the work required to haul water up steep trails means that much of the day is spent getting water. That water is often contaminated. Sickness is common. Children die of water-borne diseases.

In order for an ojo, a spring, or seep, a clean source that comes directly from the mountain, to work for the aqueduct, it has to be high enough to serve a gravity-fed system. There is no electricity for pumps, or mechanical expertise to maintain such a system.

Gravity is the only way. The project ojo is high enough to feed a system, but altitude means less watershed to feed the groundwater that percolates to the spring. The sequia may be compromising the flow of the ojo. We are hiking up to see it and to take measurements to see if the project is still viable given the drought, the season, and the needs of the people.

We climb up the road, a dirt twin track, rutted by the rains that will come in a few months, if we are lucky. Trails lead from the road to the bamboo, thatch , and galvanized roofing of family homes. It's late in the day. Families are cooking over wood fires. Their pots are set on stones and long branches are fed into the fire as they burn down.

Sean leads us off the road and up a steep trail that will take us to the freshly cut "monte" that will follow the pipes of the aqueduct. It will run along a steep contour and down into thickly wooded canyons. We pass avocado, mango, cacao, orange, grapefruit, papaya, and myriad other hardwoods. The sylvan density of the canyon blocks what little light remains of the setting sun.

We come to the first of many barbed wire crossings and Sean holds up the strand so I can step though. He say to himself and partly to me "We're going to have to watch ourselves. This is snake time, snake habitat. The gente probably think we're nuts going into the quebrada this time of day."

I hold the wire for Sean and Megan. I notice Sean's woven shoulder bag and ask him about it. "It's a chakara," he says. "Nobay men use them for hauling everything from coconuts to babies. It's the same word they have for ball sack. They make it from pita, a plant like an agave, the namesake of the community."

"I think I want a scrotum too," I say.

Megan shakes her head, long suffering mother of male banter, before jumping in with "Sean, you know Papa can't get bitten by a snake. He can't get antivenin." I had been bitten by a rattlesnake years ago, and because of the likelihood of allergic reaction, I could not receive antivenin in the event of another bite.

Sean forges ahead up the canyon, a little hurried because of the setting sun, the amount of trail, and the need to keep moving. We are no longer pasearing; we are pushing hard up the steep, leaf strewn slopes of the canyon.

"Only if it's a pit viper," I say to Megan. "Panama has all kinds of poisonous snakes, mainly Fer de Lances and coral snakes."

That does not calm her much.

We forge ahead. I am more concerned about the difficulty of the walk than I am about snakes, and watch Sean's long strides up the hill. His days as a surfer and rock climber have prepared him well for this work. It is demanding -- physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I am proud of him beyond what I can say in words. His feet are caked with weeks of dust, but I can see the fine angelic shine of the curly hair on his toes. He is pure gold as he hauls ass up the incline.

The trail traverses a loose, incredibly steep landslide. A slip here would send a walker careening down a hundred fee into the rocky canyon below. I take it slow and use my walking stick as a third leg when I wobble.

We leave the quebrada to cut over a ridge. The wind has whipped up and is screaming by at about forty miles an hour.

"Va a pegar duro," Sean says. It's going to pound hard tonight. He is right. His little wood house will shake on its foundation later in the evening. But right now, it's just beginning. A moon rises over the ridge. It's almost full, a platinum disk that I hope will light our way home.

Sean was pushing hard now. We had to make it the ojo before dark, for many reasons, and, of course, we were behind schedule a bit. That is the way here: it's necessary to "demorrar" to take time, to delay even, to take the time necessary to chat, gossip, kibitz, enjoy a moment or two or three.

But there is also work, also an impending darkness, a job to get done. We are now Anglos, working in a linear trajectory toward a goal.

In the rush to make it before dark, I cut my arm on barbed wire. Sean says I should clean it up before we get to the stream of the ojo, because there may be gente there bathing, and we doesn't want to alarm them with the sight of a bleeding Gringo. He says they are superstitious, and that they might think some demon is coming out of the woods.

I clean up. Good thing too, because we surprise a mother, her two children, and their horse when we emerge from the wall of trees into the open stream bed. They stare. I greet them in my primitive Ngabere, "Ng TOR eh." They return the greeting, still stunned. Sean told me later that I might be the largest person they had ever seen. And I was wearing a red Arizona shirt, which made me even more of an apparition.

After a few more barbed wire crossings, we reach the ojo. It is hidden in the undergrowth of plants with leaves the size of tennis racquets. The water is clear, but unimpressive, in a pool no bigger than a kitchen sink.

Sean drains the pool using the ubiquitous half gourd bowl that the gente leave at all of ojos for those who come to fill their water bottles and buckets. He scoops out the water so he can measure the flow as the water refills the pool.

When it is empty, he fills his stainless steel water bottle with the gourd while I time the process. He tells me to stop when he has a gallon. One and half gallons per minute, just enough to give a green light to the project.

"This is less than the flow to one kitchen sink in the US," Sean says. "But this has to supply over a hundred people. No extra for washing. Just drinking water. But it's worth it. People are dying."

We climb up a second ojo, and Sean looks at the undergrowth with a sigh of reluctance. I grab the gourd and kneel down to empty it out after swinging my stick to check for snakes. A black squirrel chirps in alarm and scrambles into the brush. I do my best at kneeling over to empty the pool, but tire before I can finish. Sean spells me and soon I start my stopwatch. Another gallon per minute.

"Between these two, I think we have enough. But I don't know what will happen if the drought continues. These could go dry. We're pretty high up and there isn't much catchment. It's the best we've got though."

The wind is moaning in the trees that bend with the force. It's time to climb out of the quebrada and get back to the road before it gets fully dark.

My legs barely carry me up the steep grade, with steps cut into the path for walkers carrying heavy loads of water or children.

The view from the ridge is a million bucks and the wind slaps my hat in a challenge to knock it off. I tighten the headband and lean into the wind, glad for the moment and a stout walking stick. It will be dark by the time we get back, but the moon is up. We will have to pass though deep shadows and cross roots that look like snakes in the dim light, but we will make it I hope.

The winds will pound tonight, all night. That is the way here during the dry season. They have to blow so that the rains can come. They will come. They have to.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Third Option

In these crazy times of taking one side or another, digging in, and making the opposition as wrong as you can, by whatever means necessary, it is easy to think either/or, two options, right/wrong, dichotomy.

And yes, I am right there in the trenches, but every once on a while I opt for the nuclear option. Only my choice is not the destructive kind; it's more the crazy kind. When all is lost, it's time to dance the dance of the unreasonable. I have no reasons for or against. I just want to make something beautiful, helpful, and, I hope, fun.

The outfits for this often involve polka dots or some other ridiculousness.

They also don't make financial, rational, or practical sense. They do make emotional sense, sometimes.

Time to give it away, indulge the wild hair, invite a hirsute brute to dinner, dump the routine, pound the drum, mix the scientists with the poets, the Trumpsters with the Berners, march to the swivels of carnival.

When the final roll call is taken, I hope I am caught red-handed jumping the line, between the horns of a dilemma, throwing sand in the eyes of the bull, the one who scared me into thinking I might be right.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Fall

My father, The Bear, has been falling. The last fall might have "the one," the fall that signals a line has been crossed. He hit his head on a coffee table and could not get up, even with the help of his wife Linda and Linda's sister. They did what they had to do: call an ambulance.

At eighty seven years old, with a body that has taken serious hits from injuries, and a hefty dose of Parkinson's, The Bear's decline has steepened. His heart rate drops to thirty beats per minute when his atria vibrate rather than beat; his balance is off; his mind has gotten confused. He is entering a stage of what Andrew Weil calls "compressed zone of morbidity."

That sounds so clinical and sterile I want to reject the term outright. But then I look at his stooped frame, the lost train of thought and confusion in his eyes, and watch him move from hand hold to hand hold like a sailor on the deck of a ship tossed by a hurricane.

His capacity to function has declined past the point of staying in his home.

That is a hard fact, one from which I want to run away.

Maybe Linda could hire help. Maybe he will improve with spring and exercise outside. Maybe with railings along the hallways he could still be mobile without help.

The maybes don't address the gravity of his condition.

I am grateful to Linda for having supported his staying at home for so long. I think she gave him four years of living there. His onset of Parkinson's and dementia pointed to nursing care years ago, and many would have placed him in a home at that time.

But I have to admit that the "line" between home and nursing is near and has to be crossed, for his best interests and those of Linda and the rest of his family. They have been heroic in pushing that line back again and again.

Hard facts require action on painful choices.

I hate to say it, but it may be time.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Word Wasn't Good (The Beginning)

J. bends down to light his cigarette on the electric coil atop a steel post outside the Programs Building in the Rincon Unit of the Arizona State Prison, Tucson Complex. He takes a long drag before standing up again and meeting my eyes with the question of whether or not I was coming in next Saturday. I told him I was, and that seems to satisfy him for a minute. 

His eyes are grey, sharp, and intelligent. He is one of the regulars in the workshop. He is also one of the published writers in the workshop and has won the Pen Prison Writing Contest not once, but twice. He knows I could use his help to kickstart the writing workshops now that Richard has lost his clearance.  

We are on our way out, or rather, I am on my way out.  J. is heading back to his “house,” his cell, and another afternoon waiting for chow, the next distraction in the grinding boredom or prison life.

There are the violent flashes, the race riots, the endless politicking and negotiations with the gangs, but mostly the days are dull. 

"You know," says J., looking at me over his smoke, "the guys think you're too soft, that the workshops need more pressure, mas animo, you know." He said "animo" with his clipped, fluent Spanish. His black stubble and tattoos told the story of gang affiliation, but I couldn't speak that language. "And they think your hair is fake. Look, I know it's not, because I know you, but you need to know word isn't all good." 

I don't know how to take this. Is J. conning me, looking for my reaction? 

"I'm not Richard," I said. "The workshops are going to be different.... I can't do what Richard did, but I am going to do what I do." 

We walk along the sidewalk to where it splits -- J.'s path to the houses, mine to control, the sally port, the gate, and the bus that runs between the yards. 

"We'll see," he says. "See you next week."    


That, eight years ago,  was my first take of J., the man who would come to embody the writing workshops for me. I owe him for his part in giving me some cred, for talking up writing to guys on the yard, for his tireless desire to get the words right. He was like a brother to me. He was in the workshops for six years. He published a newsletter on one of the yards until a race riot ended that privilege. 

When he was released, I got him a guitar, invited him into my house, my family, my social circles. I loaned him money (too much) and let him use my car to make probation meetings, my phone to call in drug checks. I think my cat may have taken to him better than to me. 

But I am getting ahead of myself here. This is about the workshops, about the years leading up to today, about a crash and burn and rise again only to repeat the process. 

That day at the electric coil was after my first solo prison writing workshop, and I thought things had gone pretty well. Still, J.’s confiding in me shook me a bit, not so much for myself as for the workshops. I wanted them to continue as they had for the previous thirty plus years under Richard Shelton. He had lost his clearance and it was now up to me to keep the program running.

The program soldiers on. It has received some support from interested donors and may become part of university curricula. 

But more on that later. 
J. became a good friend. When he got out I helped him find a place, a job, loaned him some tools, connected him with people who could help him get back on his feet.

That was before he went off the deep end, bolted to Mexico, and died after being beaten up for his phone, a few bucks, and being a soldado in the wrong territory, or getting too close to a drug deal going bad. He had a way of living beyond his means, especially when heroin was involved.

Now I am going to his funeral and I can’t seem to put on my tie. It’s ten o’clock in the morning, but the third beer is sitting on my desk, getting warm. God, how it gets warm here in Tucson in April. Summer just won’t take a moment to knock on the door before barging in and loud-mouthing off, a big, boorish lug who comes to the party too early and stays too late. 

So J., is gone, but the workshops continue. I don’t know what will happen next, how long they can go on, but I want to try and make some sense of this as I get ready to see J. off on his final soiree into another dark night. 

How can I begin? Well, I guess it would be best to go back, way back, to a chance office visit to a Regent's Professor who happened to run writing workshops and happened to give me a copy of the prison magazine.

Dark Glasses

He is from South Africa and usually writes about race warfare: literal warfare complete with grenades, riot gear, and pitch battles. He was there, in the thick of it, as a young man. He can't seem to shake it.

Now, for reasons I don't know, he is in an Arizona prison  in a writing workshop. He wears thick, dark glasses. All the time. I can see his eyes behind the glasses, and they are sharp, intelligent.

Today he has brought in something different. He is reluctant to read and passes his draft to another inmate. This young guy reads a piece about longing. In it, stars hang from strings, memories are carried away by the wind, an embrace dissolves in crashing waves. The writing is full of sensual, closely observed nature, emotion, and loss.

It's a break from his usual work and reaches for something ineffable. He doesn't pound us with his steady appetite for staccato violence.

He waits, stock still, after the reading, and stares at me hard through his glasses. He is easily sixty years old, but looks every bit the hopeful eighth-grader waiting for the answer after asking for a dance.

The circle of men sits for a moment, quiet. Then they applaud in approval of the effort, the breakthrough into a new style, a new subject, a new genre.

Then the man in the dark glasses takes his turn to be quiet. He doesn't take any shit, but he is at a loss for praise.

I ask him what he wants to do with the piece, where he would like to take it.

"I want it to work," he says.

I ask him to read it again, this time for lines that set the course for the next draft, the first, tentative steps in another direction, an unknown future.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Riding Around With T.C. Boyle*

He is skinny, intense. He doesn't exactly grip the wheel as much as strangle it. This guy is focused.

"The heat  today pounds like a fist," he says.

"Yup. It's hot," I reply.

"The ocean is hammered copper," he goes on.

"It is pretty bright," I say, holding my hand over eyes, wondering where this ocean he sees is as I look at the wash. I see sand and greasewood bushes, a few overturned shopping carts.

He seems to know where we are going, so I just sit back and watch the broken up sidewalks of Tucson slide past the window. The only people are tired looking, with the grime and hand-tied belongings of the long-term homeless. I wondered what that was like, to wander the streets day after day on foot or by bike.

"His whole life was a headache, his whole stinking worthless pinche vida," he said, just under his breath, pointing at one leather-faced guy hawking papers in the median.

"Is it always that bad?" I asked.

"Sometimes he slept with thirty-two other men, sleeping in shifts and lining up on the streetcorner for work."

"I guess I just don't know how things are on the streets."

"That's because all your neighbors can talk about, back and forth and on and on as if it were the key to all existence, is gates….To be erected at the main entrance and manned by a twenty-four-hour guard to keep out those very gangbangers, taggers and carjackers you've come here to escape."

"Do we have to separate like that? Can't we find some way to understand each other?"

"It’s an angry, fragmented society out there, I tell you, and I’m not only talking about your native haves and have-nots, but the torrents of humanity surging in from China and Bangladesh and Colombia with no shoes, no skills and nothing to eat."

He went on "It’s about Mexicans, it’s about blacks. It’s about exclusions, division, hate."

"Yes, I conceded, that is the way it is out there. I see it in the speeches about migration, hidden between the lines. It's hard to to look at though.  What should we do about it?"

First you have nothing, and then, astonishingly, after ripping out your brain and your heart and betraying your friends and ex-lovers and dreaming like a zombie over the page till you can't see or hear or smell or taste, you have something.
Read more at:
First you have nothing, and then, astonishingly, after ripping out your brain and your heart and betraying your friends and ex-lovers and dreaming like a zombie over the page till you can't see or hear or smell or taste, you have something.
Read more at:
"First you have nothing, and then, astonishingly, after ripping out your brain and your heart and betraying your friends and ex-lovers and dreaming like a zombie over the page till you can't see or hear or smell or taste, you have something. Then you write."

"Pleasure," he goes on "is inseparable from its lawfully wedded mate, pain."

"It's hard to really look at something and see it for what it is, unpleasant facts and all," I agreed.

He went mute, staring ahead, down a dark road.

His hand motioned for me to get out at the corner, where a convenience store sold beer, cigarettes, and gas.

"It's your turn," he said as I opened the door and stepped into the blinding light. "Remember. First you have nothing. Nothing."

* All but of a few of Boyles' lines here are excerpted from his novels or interviews. 

First you have nothing, and then, astonishingly, after ripping out your brain and your heart and betraying your friends and ex-lovers and dreaming like a zombie over the page till you can't see or hear or smell or taste, you have something.
Read more at: