Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday road trip up the King's Highway

The bills come more quickly than the money.

Never is this more obvious than during the holidays.

On Christmas Eve, I have $10.35 in my bank account and feel terrible. I have some money coming, not enough to cover bills, too late for buying gifts.

I get paid for a week's worth of farm labor and buy cookies and berries at the market, a bag of green for a friend's Christmas stocking, and a full tank of gas for the drive up to King City.

I have enough left over to pay the phone bill, and maybe buy another tank of gas. I'll need it to get to the farm, where I can earn more money in the days to come. Meanwhile, I try to enjoy the holiday.

There's nothing like having cash in my pocket to spook away the depression that comes with an empty bank account. Not enough cash to do anything with, but enough to hand over to Amber.

She deserves it, more than anyone. I owe her big time.

I'll spend a night or two with her family in King City, where she grew up, Steinbeck country. I'm glad to be on the road, alone for two hours, taking in the view of the Salinas Valley, driving north along the King's Highway.

The Salinas River flashes between sycamores and willows as my rusty 1986 Toyota truck pushes 60 mph up the highway, along the western bank of the river. Except for the occasional rattle of a broken muffler system, the truck hums smoothly.

I travel, as usual, on a wing and a prayer.

If my truck breaks down, I reason, this is the best time of the year for it to happen. Passersby full of the holiday spirit will make sure I arrive in time for dinner at the in-laws, I tell myself.

Or, as in a holiday movie, I'll re-discover life's magic and mystery, and at the very least make new friends, or even elevate myself to a new station in life.

Live free, don't worry; that's the holiday message I've created for myself. What else can I do? Fretting just makes things worse.

This reasoning lessens my anxiety about traveling long distance in a less-than-road-worthy motor vehicle. I've got a cell phone handy. I can call for help. I've even got a supply of blackberries to eat, herb to smoke-enough keep the blues away for a day or two.

Then, as if on cue, out of the darkness-this is how my mind works-comes an image of a Christmas psychopath ruining my brief vacation by putting a bullet into the back of my head as I'm hunched over the engine, trying to figure out what's wrong….

I don't dwell on the psychopath thing, which occurs whenever I get too sentimental about people's good intentions or the universe's beneficence. “The universe will supply you with all that is required for you to meet your needs,” I've been told.

Yeah, that's what Santa Claus is all about, right?

It sounds great in theory, I allow, but how do you explain random violence and acts of cruelty? What great “Secret” or law of attraction is at play in a suicide bomber's intent to kill hundreds of unsuspecting victims?

The world simply isn't what we, or Hollywood, imagine it to be.

An oversized family truck, hauling an even larger camping trailer lumbers up behind me like an enormous sea-going vessel bearing down on a life raft held together with twine and duct tape.

I observe the truck and trailer running at full steam like an ocean liner in my rearview mirror; a young couple sits high in the cab of their truck as their rig rocks gently between the lane lines. The driver peers into his side view mirror, switches on his turn signal, and moves into the next lane to pass me.

The enormous family rig overshadows my small non-descript truck and passes me on the left. The couple don't even bother to look my way, their faces set on the road before them.

The fast lane is strictly off limits for me, I've decided. The holiday traffic on this rural stretch of highway moves steadily but faster than the 70 mph speed limit. I can always tell when people are speeding; at 80 mph, I see only the flash of color of a passing car out of my peripheral vision.

I have to carefully time their passing and turn my head to see what's going by me.

Fine Lincolns and Mercedes loaded down with suitcases, gifts and holiday goodies zoom past in flashes, heading for the Bay Area. Even trucks pass without hesitation. I'm the only driver on the highway traveling 60 mph.

It's a stunning clear and bright California Christmas afternoon, the skies swept of recent grey drizzle, the air fresh with the fecund odor of oak and wet grass and decaying leaves.

I travel with my window down and breathe in the air. It's chilly in the valley, even with the sun shining bright.

Honestly, I'd rather be on the river smoking a joint, sitting by a fire and drinking something warm. It's a hobo fantasy and I have no desire to be a hobo.

I just want the cool quiet of the river, the leafy rustling of wind in the trees, and a blazing fire at my feet, where I can forget about money woes, buying gifts and road rigs large enough to house young families.§

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Root-bound and drizzly

 As soon as it started to drizzle, Lorenzo turned to go home and said: “Mañana.”

“Mañana?” I looked up into the mist. The wetness felt refreshing on my face and beard, almost tropical. The new green grass on the hillside appeared grey and yellow through the drizzle. An hour past noon, the sun felt as though it might break through the mist any minute.

I held out my hand toward the hill. “It’s hardly raining, Lorenzo. It’s just a drizzle. Really? You’re going home?”

I thought he was joking with me, trying to pull a fast one. I saw that he was serious, his face questioning. “Lorenzo, I’m staying here until it gets too muddy or cold. If you need to go, that’s OK. I don’t want you getting sick.”

I’ve worked in worse weather; sat in a foxhole soaked to the bone from rain when the sky cleared and everything froze. Nothing to do but wrap myself in a poncho, rub my hands together and try to stay warm.

Ever since, a little rain seldom bothers me. I don’t mind the rain, as long I’m warm.

Lorenzo gazed up at the sky and gave a shrug, “OK.” He returned back to work with his brother-in-law, Aldofo, who was pulling the Jewel variety of blueberries out of their bags and redressing them.

The drizzle continued falling steadily. The ground glistened among flecks of white rye grass seed that had been spread between rows a few days earlier. I looked at the sleeves of my red flannel; an outbreak of little dark specks of rain appeared.

“It’s not that bad,” I said to Lorenzo, “when it gets bad, we’ll all go.” I wanted to get as much work done as possible.

Lorenzo and his crew  incorrectly placed nearly 300 or so plants into 5-gallon grow bags in September. We had just moved the most recent transplants into the northern corner of the field. They appear anemic, yellowed, as if choked, lacking vital nutrients. They need help.

When I first discovered their sad appearance earlier this week, I began pulling them randomly from their bags to see how many of them were root-bound. Every single one was balled up tightly, like an ingrown hairball.

Leaving them that way would have meant certain demise. The only thing to do, and I’m hoping it’s not too late, is to pull every yellowed, root-bound plant out of its bag, loosen the roots, and start them over again.

Steven, who owns the crop, wasn’t happy with re-doing more than 300 plants. It was a sore spot with him for at least an hour Sunday as he removed plants from their bags, loosened their roots, added nutrients, and put them back into their containers. It took the two of us nearly two hours to finish one row out of more than 10 that needed to be re-done.

Steven had cooled after the first row and we got into a rhythm. “Our new motto,” he said, “is no more fuck-ups.”

In so many words, a more experienced farmer told me that farming is nothing more than an ongoing series of fuck-ups. Three steps forward, two steps back, if you’re lucky.

I don’t like working Sundays. I was cranky and in no mood to argue. “Yeah, good motto.”

Damage control on the blueberries could have been avoided. I might have paid better attention to Lorenzo, who had forgotten, or neglected, to loosen the roots during the last phase of transplanting, about 500 plants, which we completed in October.

We had let them stay put for about four weeks before moving them into rows, allowing, we thought, the plants a chance to get somewhat established. Days after we finished setting up all 1,500 plants into rows, we detected the yellowing, spindly growth of the newest transplants. The northern edge of the field looked almost like a weed patch.

As we trim away the spindly growth, the plants actually show more vigor than was apparent at first. The remaining leaves appear green and healthy, some with pink buds, which we’ve been pinching off.

I’m hoping our effort will pay off. The plants, newly loosed, need to re-settle and re-establish a good root system. We may not get a harvest from them next season, but at least we can try to save them and give them another chance.

The episode left me more feeling more cautious about our workers. I demonstrated how to carefully loosen the bags, pull the plants from their containers and undo the root balls, which were shaped more like the original square 1-gallon containers from which they had come.

“You pull the corners like this,” I said, digging my thumb into each corner and pulling away the tangled roots. “Then massage between the corners, like this. OK?”

Aldolfo started into the next one, pulling, tugging and tearing. “Gentle,” I said. “Be gentle.” I took the plant into my hand. “Tease the roots out. Don’t pull and tear.” Aldolfo nodded his head. I watched him do a few more until I felt satisfied.

He and Lorenzo began working on the plants together. I observed them from a distance while adding mulch to the re-bagged plants. I watered and trimmed.

I went to tend the drip system, which is nearly completed on the southern half of the field. When I returned to check on Aldolfo, he was tugging hard on one of the plants, nearly pulling the stem out of the root ball.

“No, Aldolfo. Too much! Easy!”

I got on my knees and pushed on the sides of the bag, loosening the soil around the plant. He pulled it up easily, without struggle. “If it doesn’t wanna come out, it’s probably OK, it’s probably got a good root system. Leave it alone.”

We made good progress, finishing one row in just over an hour. They broke for lunch and soon after they returned it began to drizzle.

Five minutes had passed since I convinced Lorenzo to go back to work with his brother-in-law. The drizzle fell like a hard mist, not quite rain but wet.

“OK, mañana!” Lorenzo said, as he picked himself up and headed for the gate once more to go home. “The mist is more wet than rain.”

“I’ve never heard that before, Lorenzo. But if you say so; see you tomorrow.”

Aldolfo stayed and the drizzle fell hard for another 40 minutes before he too got up and said: “Mañana!” At one point, I turned to him and said: “I like this rain. It feels tropical, don’t you think, Aldolfo?”

He looked at me as if I had lost my senses. “No,” he said, “it’s cold.”

The field was starting to get muddy.

I went to sit in my truck, eat lunch and watch the drizzle turn into rain, and then stop completely. My feet were wet. I felt a chill. I could hear the drizzle returning as it fell on the leaves of the willows next to the creek. I started up the truck and drove home. §

Monday, December 21, 2009

Jesus the Badass

Jesus the badass. Shoots Santa Claus and bags a reindeer.

The neighbors aren't happy about Ron Lake's Christmas display in the front yard of his Nipomo home. Some find it offensive. Christians have trouble imagining Jesus with a gun; parents aren't pleased with a dead Santa Claus.

But Lake argues that too much commercialism has turned the holiday into one insufferable pain in the ass. He's right. Too bad his neighbors can't find the humor in the message. Jesus with a gun? That's hilarious. Dead Santa Claus? Praise Jesus!

KSBY News San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles - Controversial Christmas display has neighbors calling law enforcement

Friday, December 18, 2009

Lorenzo's Story

At 4:30 p.m., the sun dipped below the hillside, I started to wrap things up, putting away tools, covering up supplies (in case of rain), and scanning the blueberries to make sure I hadn’t left any plants exposed after a day of replanting.

In fact, I was re-bagging plants that needed care. The root balls hadn’t been properly loosened when they were initially placed into 5-gallon grow-bags in September. We hope the plants will thrive in these bags for the next year or two and produce good harvests.

For that to happen, however, the plants need a good start.

I noticed that recently many of the plants in the north end of the field, the ones most recently transplanted, appeared anemic, with yellow-green spindly growth, and unhealthy yellow leaves.

Elsewhere, the blueberries show the stout reddish growth of new canes that will support a good harvest in the spring. The healthier plants had been transplanted in May, were given the right start and had matured nicely into what we hope will be sturdy steady producers.

The difference between the healthy plants and the less healthy ones makes an unsettling contrast. Vibrant red against sickly yellow.

The difference could best be explained by the possibility that the roots of the weaker plants, never properly loosened, were tangled and root-bound.

Earlier today, I started pulling selections of the yellowish plants from their bags and, as I suspected, the root balls had never been loosened. Each was a tight, fuzzy red, 1-gallon square knot of roots.

“Shit!” I groaned, looking out over several hundred plants on the north side of the field, realizing that nearly all of them were similarly spindly, yellow, and in need of help.

I got angry with Lorenzo, whose job it was to massage the root balls and make sure they were properly loosened before placing them into the grow bags. I had shown him how. Maybe he forgot. Then, I got angry with myself for not watching him more closely.

I brought Lorenzo over to see the sad-looking plant and explained the problem. I held the ingrown root ball in my hand. “No bueno,” I said.

Steven, the owner of the blueberries, showed up shortly after and we went on a tour of the field. He got irritated. “Wasn’t it General Patton who said he didn’t like paying for the same real estate twice? What am I supposed to do, pay these guys to do the job over again?”

I couldn’t think what to say, “Another example of how a job done with care saves time in the end.”

Steven turned away and went looking for Lorenzo. “Let’s get it done,” he said over his shoulder. “Lorenzo! Hey, Lorenzo!” He gave Lorenzo an earful about blueberries, good growth versus bad growth, and doing the job right.

“OK?” he asked after the short lecture. “Let’s do it right.”

I was certain that Lorenzo must have thought that I ratted him out. I felt bad. It was as much my fault as it was his for not keeping a better eye on him.

I had shown him how to loosen the root ball and open the roots for transplanting. But I guess he had other ideas. So, there’s close to 200 or more plants that need to be re-bagged.

I’m hoping it won’t be too late; that we’ll get them treated in time to develop more roots and new healthy growth in the spring.

I’m not thrilled about pulling all those plants; it’s job security, if nothing else. Yet, each day it gets more critical to bring life back into their system, to put good color into next season’s new growth.

I’ll need Lorenzo’s help to get it done. I’m worried that he won’t do it right. I think about enlisting the support of his son, who has an easier time understanding me.

I like Lorenzo and he seems to like me. We talk but hardly understand each other, although, as time passes, I’m beginning to understand him more.

I don’t know why I never learned to speak Spanish, which is just as bad as not learning to speak English. In California, you really need to know both.

Lorenzo and his crew had already strolled up the dirt road, between the creek and orange grove, past the packinghouse, and across the loading area to their home to rest for the evening.

I didn’t expect to see them again until morning.

As the clouds turned pink, the sun dropped quickly, and the wind took on a chill in the long shadow of the hillside. Time to go home. I started for my truck when Lorenzo returned.

“You want a coke?” he asked pulling a can from his sweatshirt?

“Sure, Lorenzo. Thanks.”

He held up a half-full plastic bottle with an apple juice label and smiled, “This is my whiskey.”

Lorenzo likes to drink. I sat on the flat surface of a heavy duty Thermos lunch container; he took a seat on an upturned 5-gallon bucket.

He never offered the whiskey. “You like to smoke?” He reached into his sweatshirt once more and pulled out a box of cigarettes.

“No, not those, Lorenzo. Thanks anyway.”

“I only smoke when I drink,” he offered. “Cerveza, tequila.”

Lorenzo isn’t supposed to drink. He’s got diabetes. He nips from his apple-labeled whisky bottle, puffs his cigarette.

I think of breaking out the mota, but decide to wait for a better time, when I don’t need to be on the road.

He tells me he started working on the farm when he was 15. Back then he carried heavy pipe used to irrigate the field, three times in the day and three times at night. Lorenzo raises his arms over his head as if holding up a huge barbell.

The going was tough, he explained, pointing to his knees, raising them as if pulling his feet out of muck. His knees are too damaged to play soccer any more.

“How old are you now, Lorenzo?”


He looks much older. When I first met Lorenzo, I thought he was in his 60s. He has four children, two who speak proficient English and are attending the local junior college, and a preschooler and a fifth grader.

When the two older children were toddlers, he says, about 20 years ago, he worked 12-hour shifts driving a produce truck during harvest, making four deliveries every day, except Saturdays, two deliveries, and Sundays, just one delivery.

The farmer ran a crew of about 30 hands, he tells me, some who worked in the field harvesting peppers and squash, and others who kept the packinghouse busy.

Now, it’s much more quiet, he mourns. Not enough work.

“What happened to the peppers and squash?” I ask.

“No price,” Lorenzo says. The farmer can’t sell them.

He can’t work the way he did when he was younger, Lorenzo says. The hard work took a lot out of him, he admits. He drank a lot. The diabetes has forced him to cut back. He shouldn’t drink at all.

Working the fields all his life, he got only as far as third grade, he says. He doesn’t seem to mind. Tomorrow, he’s setting aside a couple of hours to prep 400 pounds of meat for a Mexican coming of age celebration at the Veterans Hall where a host of young people will dance and flirt and feast.

He says he’s lucky to have the work provided by the blueberries. Otherwise, at the farm at least, it’ll be a few months before he’s busy again.

It’s hard to imagine going that long without work. I’m not much different from Lorenzo. I’m lucky to have something too. §

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pride goes before the muck

At the risk of being a fool, I put pride into my words, into what I say.

It hasn’t always worked out to my advantage, this devotion to words.

Like today, it has sometimes put me in harm’s way.

As winds gusted to gale force, I set out to accomplish what I’d promised my friend Steven, whose blueberries I’ve tended and watched since returning home from Orange County.

It’s the first major storm of the season in California, which needs this rain as much as a budget solution, perhaps more. Forecasters predicted as much as three to six inches of rainfall in some valleys.

For a place that hasn’t had rain in months, and has stayed dry, with little or no recharge for years, that’s a lot of rain.

We need it badly. Avocado farmers in Morro Bay have been trucking in water every day for weeks. One source said they’re paying as much as $8,000 per square-acre-foot of water, just to keep their trees from drying up.

“You know how much I pay?” the grower said. “About $200.” That’s because he’s got water. (Quite a few area wells, which had produced good quality water for years, reportedly dried up suddenly in the 6.5 San Simeon quake of 2003 that killed two women in Paso Robles; just closed up and went dry).

The drought in California has hit hard in some communities; water has become a top priority in places where it impacts both the economy and quality of life. Areas in the Valley, the nation’s breadbasket, have seen vast tracts of farmland turned into dust, as well as 48 percent unemployment among farm workers.

The LA Times recently ran a front-page photo of a Valley farmer standing in a dry field, a grim reminder of the Great Depression’s dust bowl. It’s not the first time we’ve felt this pain.

The rain, like jobs and healthy agriculture, we need desperately. Steady and full as it might be, though, this storm won’t be enough to ease California’s water woes.

We’ll need quite a few more big storms like this one to recharge our water system. Luckily, it’s supposed to be a wet winter, they say.

Of course, there are plenty of skeptics. “Yeah, sure, it’s going to be a wet one all right. I’ll bet this storm doesn’t even hit,” balked a fellow musician Sunday when I said it was going to rain this week.

This year’s first storm was supposed to be power-packed, driven by another El Niño warming of the Pacific Ocean, which typically fuels the wet winter storms that occasionally wallop California, causing mudslides where fires burned in the late summer.

I failed to realize how major of a storm this one is, up to nearly an inch of rain per hour and, later, flood advisories and, in some areas, gusts up to 80 mph.

It’s easy to forget about things like storm damage in California, after such a long spell without major rainfall. You get used to day after day of sunshine until it lulls you. “It’s just another rainstorm,” I thought this morning. What’s a little wind and rain?

Zsu Zsi, Steven’s wife, called to say she’d gotten soaked from head to toe while tending her chickens. “It’s not the rain so much as the wind,” she said. “It just blasts you.”

Nonetheless, I told Steven that I’d make a run up to the farm today to see how the area surrounding the new blueberry enclosure would take the rain. He was worried about runoff from a nearby wash, thinking that it might spillover into the enclosure, washing away all of our hard work.

Before leaving, I gave Amber a little grief about being true to her words, following through with the promises and commitments she makes. This has been the subject of much conversation lately.

Amber says she wants to follow through with her commitments, just as I want to follow through with my own, which doesn’t always happen.

We both have dreams we know will never happen until we do something about them. So we’re trying to help each other keep our commitments to what we love. It’s been much harder since the recent economic collapse—even though we’re not really calling it that—and jobs have become scarce. We’ve had to devote more of our time to simple survival.

Amber had made plans to drive up to her mother’s for the night, and was beginning to have second thoughts. “I think I’m going to stay home today,” she informed me.

“You’re backing out?” I challenged, worried that she wasn’t staying committed. She’s not taking the easy way out, I hope. My thoughts were less occupied with the wind tossing the trees outside our windows.

“I’m not really backing out, I’m just thinking about staying home,” she said. I left in a fretful mood. Maybe it was the weather.

Before I could reach the other side of town to drive up Highway 1, however, I pulled to the side of the road, and called Amber on the cellphone.

The wind blew the rain in sheets. Water dripped through the windshield. Puddles and water were all over the road. Visibility was limited to a few hundred feet or less of wet grey and glistening asphalt, reflecting the headlights of oncoming cars. Wind gusts splashed buckets of water at my wipers.

“Hey, Amber. It’s probably not a good idea to be on the road today,” I said. “Don’t go to your mom’s house. Stay home.”

I even thought about turning around and waiting it out. I could run up to the farm later, during a break in the storm. But I promised. I’d better go up there now. Back and forth it went, until I turned back onto the road and drove into the battering rain.

The first sign of real danger were the blasts of wind howling through the canyons, rattling and buffeting my little Toyota truck between the lane lines. I managed to avoid oncoming traffic and watched for swerving cars, RVs and trucks crossing into my lane.

This is stupid. I pushed against my better judgment and kept driving north along the winding two-lane highway. I’m halfway there, might as well keep going.

I put keeping my word above plain old common sense and drove on, not realizing the danger of driving in the worst storm to hit the Bay Area in nearly 50 years.

As soon as I turned off Highway 1 onto Villa Creek Road, I felt relief. At least there wasn’t any oncoming traffic. Californians are the worst drivers in the world when it rains. They drive too slow or too fast, contributing to the hundreds of accidents that occur during storms.

Coming off the highway, the three-mile country road first enters upon a sizable grove of eucalyptus trees, a non-native tree that is often associated with California in romanticized versions of the state’s majestic landscapes.

The trees are a nuisance and present serious hazards during storms. I grew up watching them, planted as windbreaks for orchards, topple with every Santa Ana wind that blew in the fall and winter.

They’re brittle, have shallow root systems and choke out native plants. I’d love to see them declared a noxious weed and eradicated. But eucalyptus romantics argue they provide habitat for Monarch butterflies, not realizing that replacing the invasive trees with native oaks would provide better habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, not just butterflies.

In storms, eucalyptus trees drop limbs, branches, and debris—when they’re not uprooted by the wind. I got my first real panic passing under the canopy of eucalyptus that greets motorists as they turn onto Villa Creek Road.

I sure hope one of these suckers doesn’t come down on me. Debris was strewn all over the road. Limbs creaked above as the wind bent them this way and that.

Turning back seemed silly now, only three miles left, half of it unpaved road, to the blueberry enclosure.

I slowed my speed as the road turned to wet dirt. I had to navigate a few treacherous turns, one by an old oak tree, a sharp blind corner that plunges to a deep ravine. The slightest fishtail could have sent me careening.

The truck slipped here and there but I managed to avoid dreaded fishtails through the sharper turns in the road.

One car passed slowly from the other direction. It must be passable, at least. Otherwise, there was no sign of activity, no workers in the fields, just lots of mud and clay. Crushed redrock kept the road from turning into muck.

I crossed the bridge that passes over Villa Creek and turned into the encampment of workers’ homes located near the packinghouse, not a sign of life. Usually there’s a flurry of activity, a forklift loading crates onto Albertson’s trucks, UPS vans making deliveries, workers packing oranges into crates.

I was the only person out today.

I turned past the packinghouse and pulled up to the gate leading to the enclosure protected from deer, wild pigs and cattle. I didn’t have any trouble getting to the gate but decided that it would be best to park at the gate and walk along the enclosure rather than drive into it and risk getting stuck.

The wash that Steven and I had worried about appeared fine, no rushing rivulets of water pouring into our project, no immediate risk to our new plantings. A few limbs from willows along the creek had split and were left dangling, the only real sign of damage from the storm.

Even the blueberry plants appeared to have suffered little damage. The rain and wind continued to howl through the canyons.

Satisfied, I got back into my truck and started to back up toward the packinghouse when my tires started slipping in the mud. The back end veered first toward the creek, where I would have needed to a tractor to get out, then toward the orange trees.

Then, I was stuck. Three times I got out, checked my tires, submerged in muck, spinning freely, unable to get traction. Finally, after about half an hour of twisting and turning and making a mess of the short stretch of road, I escaped.

What a fucking idiot! What was I thinking? I drove home thinking of how foolish I had been trying to keep my word in the face of such unnecessary risks. I was lucky to get home in one piece, lucky that I didn’t have to knock on Lorenzo’s door to ask him to come out into the rain and pull my truck out of the creek.

I managed to keep my word but next time I make a promise, I’ll let common sense rather than pride guide my actions. §

Monday, September 28, 2009

From publisher to farm laborer

My body aches from the only work I’ve had since January.

I spent my first week home putting up fences on a nearby coastal farm—digging, setting posts, pounding the ground with a tamping bar, and pulling barbed wire—to protect blueberries from wild pigs, deer and cattle.

For nearly four months, while staying in Orange County, I had the luxury of writing three to four hours every day. What else was I going to do? The rest of the time I committed to a futile job search.

“Don’t worry about it,” mom said in response to my worry that I was becoming more of a burden rather than a supportive caregiver. “The economy’s terrible right now. You’re not the only one who’s out of work.”

California was inching toward its highest rate of unemployment in 70 years, more than 12 percent of the people who are still being counted. Some estimates put the actual number of unemployed as high as 25 percent, which is about what it was during the Great Depression.

The timing for me to stay with mom during her breast cancer treatment turned out to be serendipitous. I’d been out of work since January, had no money, and was having troubles at home.

As treatments go, mom’s was pretty basic. They caught the cancer early enough so that she didn’t need chemotherapy, just five weeks of radiation to incinerate whatever cancer cells might have still remained after her lumpectomy.

I would have gone no matter what. She hadn’t even marked the first anniversary of dad’s death when she found out she had cancer. She needed some moral support.

I needed a break from relationship pressures. So, I moved a small load of belongings in a junkyard Toyota truck and putted down Highway 101 to Tustin and stayed there from late May until mid-September.

While there, I contacted nurseries, landscapers, the Orange County Register, and OC Weekly to find work. I’d take anything. I’ve worked hard, installing landscapes, digging trenches, carrying heavy stones, planting trees.

But I was hoping for something less arduous, less physically demanding, an assignment with a magazine, working part-time on the copy desk of a newspaper.

“No one’s spending any money right now,” said one landscape contractor, who responded to an email query. There aren’t any jobs, he said. Everything had come to a standstill.

Meanwhile, each month the job outlook turned bleaker as the government reported an increase in layoffs.

The Orange County Register notified me that they’d forward my resumé to the appropriate “Team Leader.”  I guess editors aren’t called editors any more.

Not long after, the Freedom Communications, Inc. newspaper announced that it would be cutting more than 60 employees from its payroll.

While solvent, and reportedly one of the few Freedom properties to be showing a profit, the Register was doing better than its parent company, which was itself grappling with more than $700 million in debt.

It was another sign that the publishing world continues to be rocked by economics and technology. Advertising dollars are disappearing and digital technology is taking over the spread of information.

Print has become an anachronism. Newspapers have been especially hard-hit and journalists and editors have become casualties of the downturn. Jobs are scarce. Mom said it doesn’t matter what the field, though, jobs are hard for anyone to find right now.

In my search, I played the online social networks LinkedIn, Facebook, even Twitter, writing, posting blog entries and sending out resumés. Not one nibble.

Three and a half months in Orange County, and not one lousy job offer. I kept busy volunteering for a marijuana lifestyle magazine, OC Weedly (not to be confused with the alternative weekly) that had recently published its debut edition.

While fun, the gig didn’t pay the bills. All I got out of the deal was a square of “enhanced” chocolate, which kept me up that night with my face in the open window, desperate for air, feeling the world closing in, and vowing never again to eat one of those chocolates.

I had reservations about coming home, not knowing how things would work out with my mate, concerned about mom, and still feeling unsettled without the assurance of a steady income.

“A lot of people are feeling that way lately,” mom said before I returned home. “It’s a very tough time right now.” I appreciate her care and compassion, and the reminder that it’s not just me, that I’m not a complete fuckup, living with mom, looking for work. “You’re not the only one who’s got it tough,” she said.

I was spoiled at mom’s, working from home, writing every day. Nothing was coming of it. I wasn’t making any money. When anxiety struck, I’d remind myself that these opportunities to focus on what I love don’t come very often.

Mom was hoping I might score something in Orange County and stay in the area. After nearly four months of sheltering with her, however, I was beginning to feel stifled, occasionally overwhelmed by anxiety, and sudden panic attacks that felt like I was suffocating.

Some of it was simply the stuffiness of a house closed to the summer heat. Mom would close the windows and doors as soon as the temperature outside rose higher than indoors.

“It’s 84 degrees outside, I’m closing the windows,” she’d say, shutting them hard against the heat. Before too long, the house, while moderately cooler than outdoors, became stuffy, almost stifling. I couldn’t stand it.

Some of it was the jet fuel and exhaust that fell from the commercial airliners passing overhead on their way to John Wayne Airport. Sooty grit, a dark-grey grainy layer of exhaust grime, clung to the leaves of her fruit trees and hand railings and porch.

I awakened several times in the night, panicked, gasping for breath. I’d never had so many respiratory episodes as I did living in Orange County this summer. It might simply have been a case of anxiety. In any event, anxiety and pollution make a harmful cocktail.

Some of it was living with mom. It’s her world, not mine, and it wasn’t easy adjusting to living with her again. I’ve been on my own for more than 30 years.

I was feeling stuck in a sprawling megalopolis that never sleeps, reels from economic woes like everywhere else in the U.S., and has few of the perks and escapes I’ve come to expect from my home in seaside Cayucos, nestled on the edge of Estero Bay, which opens wide to the Pacific Ocean and brings in fresh breezes and marine influences that cleanse the air and makes breathing easy.

Going home, I knew my chances of finding a job were probably better than they had been in Southern California. After 25 years, I have a better network on the Central Coast.

On my return, I found out that business had been good during the summer when tourists pass through the area midway between L.A. and San Francisco. The restaurants stayed busy and the local motels remained full.

Sure enough, home just two days, and I got work helping a friend prepare a field for blueberries. Wild pigs run through the area in packs, feasting on whatever grub they can find, pulling up seeds and seedlings, sweeping through the fields like mowers.

The only way to stop them is to protect the fields from being ravished at night—build a fence, or shoot the pigs, or both.

It’s easier, in the long run, to build a fence. Farmers sleep better at night when they’re not out at 2 a.m. guarding their fields from four-legged marauders that eat everything in sight and like to wallow in the mud afterwards.

Honestly, I’d rather sleep soundly at night than get worked up about the demanding labor of digging holes and setting posts, which is what I’ve been doing. The first couple of days felt like hell week: The only way to survive is to put mind before matter; aches and pains only go away with more pounding.

When the tractor augur wouldn’t break through the sun-baked clay for a new gatepost, I went at it with a digging bar, chipping the hard-packed ground, and then pulling up dirt with a posthole digger. It was tedious, pounding work.

My body hasn’t been subject to such rigors during the last three-and-a-half months that I’ve spent with mom. I’d gotten used to a more sedentary lifestyle of writing, working at my desk, seeking employment, checking in on mom.

When the augur failed to penetrate the hard-packed clay, it had to be dug by hand.

“Work smart, not hard,” Darren said the first week we worked together. He’s the son of the farmer who’s land my friend is leasing for his blueberries. Darren’s a junior at Cal Poly where he’s studying ag business. He’s smart, straight-up, likes to get things done and wants to be an officer in the Marines.

He listens to Rush Limbaugh. “You ever listen to Rush?” he asked one day as he turned up the radio in his truck.

“Not really,” I said.

As we listened to Rush claim that Obama’s a racist, we set the post, leveled it, and pulled red rock from a nearby pile. With a tamping bar, we pounded the rock into the surrounding hole again and again and again, methodically tamping the post into place.

After securing the fence, I spent the next week working alone mostly, installing the irrigation system that will feed and water the blueberries.

It’s hard work. I’ve wondered what I’m doing laboring as a farm worker at $12 an hour. I’ve spent my life writing, editing and publishing, which is also hard work but in a different kind of way.

I like working my body; I always have. I’ve always believed that the best way to live is to keep a balance between mind and body, working both with equal zeal.

The ideal work setting, for me, would be to split the day between labor and art, to work my hands in the soil and to exercise my mind and imagination through music, art and poetry.

As I get older, however, it’s harder to justify long hours swinging a pick, or digging and shoveling, which I still love. At 51, my body doesn’t recover as quickly. Younger men like Darren do it with less pain, and can even plan an evening out afterwards.

On the way to the farm recently, I stopped at a local café for coffee and ran into Bowman, who grew up at a different farm where his father runs an orchard, cattle and goats with Bowman’s help. He works as hard as anyone I know.

He’s built more than his share of fences, tending livestock and taking care of the land. At 36, he’s recently engaged and thinking about settling down.

“Feel like putting up some fence today, Bowman?” I teased.

“Sure,” he said. “You’re building a fence? You need help?”

“I’m just fucking with you, Bowman,” I said. “I don’t need your help, but thanks. I’ll let you know when I do. We finished the fence last week. We’re putting in irrigation pipe today.”

“Aren’t you getting a little too old to be doing that kind of shit?” he asked.

“Yeah, but what’re you going to do? It’s the only work I can find right now, and I kinda like it.” §

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Obama "Takeover"

An aura of hysteria has followed President Barack Obama since he stepped into the national limelight. It started with his campaign when throngs of voters rallied to his side for “Change” and sang the hallelujah chorus of “Yes, we can!” It continues today with detractors who descend upon townhall meetings to claim he’s a Nazi or a socialist.

The only thing I get hysterical about when it comes to President Barack Obama, though, is that he hasn’t shown much leadership. Why, for example, are we suggesting that it’s going to take at least 80 percent of the Senate to approve a national healthcare bill?

The Democrats, pussies all, own the Senate. They have a majority.

If Republicans can’t come up with a better plan, let’s put it to a vote. Forget the Republicans who, lacking their own leadership, or plan, appear more like spoiled children, making up stories about death panels and the demise of the poor insurance companies. Democrats, meanwhile, indulge and pamper, flip-flopping over their own plan like beached fish.

Meanwhile, the throngs of Obama supporters who put him into office seem to have vanished. Where are they? Why have they allowed right-wing alarmists to disrupt townhall meetings with their scurrilous claims of a secret Obama agenda to Nazi-fy our government? How have his supporters been so easily silenced? Why accept the lame leadership he’s offered so far?

It was the demand for change that got him elected. What happened? What’s changed?

• Diplomatic belligerence has been reduced a little and returned a step closer to what appears like statesmanship; if only Hillary could stay out of the limelight and let the State Department do its job of bringing in more people like her husband Bill Clinton.
• We’ve decided that torture’s not a good way to make friends with the enemy.
• Obama put a Latina on the nation’s Highest Bench, a woman whose legal verve, we hope, isn’t anything like her persona.
• And, we’re twisting our britches because we can’t get enough Republicans to vote on his healthcare plan. I want a president who kicks ass, someone like Lyndon Johnson, who knows how to muscle his way through loads of bureaucratic bullshit and accomplish his goals.

So far, we’ve got a president who’s not tough enough, who wants a bipartisan bill with partisans who claim he’s trying to ram his “socialist” agenda down our throats. I haven’t seen the president ram anything down anyone’s throat. Not yet, but I hope it happens soon.

Consider the charged hope for change that earned him prominence, the throngs of young voters who turned out to elect him president: It grew with a dynamism that felt real. But was it? What happened to the electricity of 2008? Was voter enthusiasm for Obama just another type of American mass hysteria?

As Obama learns how to govern his own party, another wing of hysterics claims that he’s hired 30 czars (as opposed to the usual 12)—some of whom are communist—in his diabolical plan to take over the government.

I’m still waiting for the takeover; I wish he’d hurry up.

I’d love to see the dynamism for change we sought in electing Obama president turn into something real. Policies with substance and clout; action not rhetoric on behalf of the millions of Americans without health insurance; protections against bankers, dinosaur automakers and businesses that should go out of business instead of receiving government bailouts.

Critics who fear a communist takeover need not fear: Just as Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 911, so the communists have nothing to do with Obama’s czars. It’s more likely to be your next-door neighbor, someone like me, who wants to see a takeover, who wants his president to start kicking some ass.

Until then, I’ll wish upon Obama the ghost of Lyndon Johnson to harass and pester him until he can no longer sleep at night, until finally he’s forced to take hold of the reins of government and put some real muscle into his declaration for change. §

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Laughing at the monster

None of us is immune to what we fear most.

I’ve seen enough of death to know that it’s the biggest fear behind all the others.

Our soldiers and their families have certainly seen enough of it to know the worst: Limbs torn asunder, eyes splintered and hearing lost in roadside explosions, sacrifices beyond measure—and reason.

So it seems silly to complain about a little cancer.

I look at myself in the mirror and roll my tongue between my gums and cheek. A sore. Where did that come from? I don’t have any dental insurance. My only medical comes from the U.S. government.

I floss my teeth the way I was taught more than 40 years ago. At 51, I’m reaching that age where I’m going to need some dental care soon. My thoughts take me back to this morning’s dream:

It’s my birthday. I’m 86. I'm amused, bewildered. How did this happen so quickly? I share my feelings with other dream figures, friends, it seems. They’re amused too, on the verge of laughter.

Getting older really is a joke. It’s a wild bet against the monster demon of the Forgotten, the mythological beast that swallows you whole and no one remembers your name. There’s nothing you can do with the monster but laugh.

The number in my dream probably has as much to do with getting 86’d from life as it does with age. The joke, as older people know, is that, sooner or later, you’re gonna die.

I’ve had two melanomas removed from my body, one of which I still haven’t paid for. Not long after the second surgery, I lost my job along with the company-sponsored health insurance plan. I haven’t had a personal plan since.

I’ve visited the doctor enough to know what to watch for, but lately just about every little bump, bruise and mouth sore alarms me. I’m a hypochondriac, for sure. Adding years to my lifespan doesn’t seem to help.

So far, the Veterans Health Administration has been a godsend. I’ve kept my regular appointments and checkups, and the doctors are happy to advise. I’m in good health, they say. Plus, I’ve had some of the best group counseling a vet can get for grappling with the angers and frustrations that come not just from military service but more often from life itself.

Only once have I panicked over my government-sponsored healthcare plan.

The artful young private doctor who removed the slab of skin from my leg, which looked like a strip of pork with hair on it, ordered me to come back every six months. “For at least five years,” she added.

I wasn’t going argue with her.

Then I lost my plan. My bill went unpaid.

Without medical coverage, I wasn’t sure how I’d get to see a doctor to prevent another mole from turning into a massive cancer. Melanoma, one of the deadliest and most aggressive cancers, and least likely to respond to chemo, can best be fought with early detection, which also reduces healthcare costs.

A friend, who also served in the army, told me to check with the VA, and qualify for periodic checkups.

Being poor, I qualified. For now, I rely on the government to help me in time of need. It’s not what I’d choose if I had the means, but it’s a helluva a lot better than nothing. How it compares to private insurance for emergency or intensive care remains to be seen. I hope I’ll never need it.

But in the U.S., if you’re going to see a doctor or stay in a hospital for treatment without going bankrupt, you need insurance, a plan to underwrite expenses that few American families can afford.

The sore in my cheek, bumps or discolorations in the skin, which more often than not turn into pimples, and every little change in my body, sends a little shiver of panic.

What if it turns into something? I look in the mirror and scold myself for letting my cheeks turn pink from too much sun while riding my bicycle yesterday.

I don’t surf as much since the little lamb chop was removed from my leg. I stay protected from the sun as much as possible and avoid too much exposure. At my age, it probably doesn’t matter. The damage is done.

A soul-surfing friend, the Kahuna of Cayucos, told me: “You can’t stop doing what you love; you gotta enjoy life.”

He’s right. But it’s hard to avoid the image of huge chunks of skin or flesh being removed from my body to prevent a disease that medical science hasn’t completely fathomed, not enough yet to find a cure. At least cancer treatment in the U.S. has advanced to give us an uncertain hope, which is better than a death sentence.

I got an appointment at the VA clinic downtown, a 20-minute drive from home and easy to access. I went to see my assigned physician’s assistant to request an appointment with a dermatologist.

The young, pretty, distracted, overwhelmed PA sat at her computer and asked a lot of questions in a detached, robotic manner, as if she found it much easier to run on autopilot and read the script.

I wanted her to look at me and talk to me in the way a patient needs, the way my personal doctor did: I’m listening. You’re in good hands. Don’t worry. I wanted her to give me a pat on the hand, a signal that she was doing more than just plugging data into the computer. But I could tell that life had been hard for her and I didn’t want to bother her with my own problems.

She seldom looked at me, and asked the usual questions for VA quarterly checkups: “Do you have any allergies? How much alcohol do you drink in a month, a week, a day? Are you still smoking marijuana?”

This was one question where she’d break from her computer screen, look me in the eye and press home her point: “Let’s try to bring down your marijuana intake, OK?”

She checked my vitals, made me touch my toes, tapped my back and listened to my bronchials. “When’s the last time you had a blood test?”

I always manage to skip the blood test until the PA tells me to visit the lab on my way out.

She continued to go down her rap sheet until finally, frustrated that she wasn’t paying attention to me, I told her this wasn’t supposed to be an ordinary checkup. “I’m here because I need to see a dermatologist.”

“Let’s see….” She went back to her computer, as if confused.

“I’ve had two melanomas,” I explained. “I’m supposed to see a doctor every six months.”

“Well, we can put in a request for you to see one in about a year. I’ve just checked you out and you look fine.”

“Yeah, but you’re not a dermatologist,” I said. “I have a couple of spots I want checked out.”

She came over, I lifted my shirt, and she inspected a suspect mole. “I can’t promise you anything; it could take up to a year.”

“I don’t want to wait that long,” I said.

“We’ll make a note that it’s urgent.” She tapped something on the computer, assured me that it wouldn’t take long to get an appointment, and opened the door for me to leave. “Don’t forget to do your labs,” she said as I made a turn for the exit.

I drove over to the County Medical Service Provider, a locally run program for the indigent, worried that I’d be dead or ravaged with a fatal disease, by the time the VA’s dermatologist put me on his schedule.

The CMSP portables were located across town, sitting on the backside of what used to be General Hospital, shut down years ago by local taxpayers and used for other services. The waiting room was filled with Spanish-speaking moms, a pregnant woman, children playing with toys and another veteran.

The receptionist slid a clipboard with pen-on-a-chain through the window and asked me to fill out an information sheet. I did as told, quickly losing hope that I’d see a qualified doctor who could examine the mole on my skin in time to avoid the monster.

“If you already have coverage with the VA, there’s nothing we can do,” she said after reading my info sheet. “You’ll have to go through the VA.”

“Yeah, but I can’t get in,” I explained as patients in the waiting room paused to listen. “I’m supposed to see a doctor every six months.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Early detection is the best and least expensive way to manage this,” I urged.

“I’m sorry. We can try to put this through but I doubt it will help.”

“Please do,” I said. As I turned to leave, the faces in the room showed sympathy and I was certain they were glad not to be in my shoes.

I walked out into the bright sunlight in a panic, conjuring possibilities: Maybe a car wash, get a second and third job, turn tricks to raise funds so I can be screened by a dermatologist.

“Hey!” shouted a voice behind me. “Hey! Are you a vet?”

I turned to see the man who was wearing a military baseball cap in the waiting room. He'd followed me outside. “Yeah,” I said. “I was in the army.”

He wore a Vietnam-era Screaming Eagles cap from the 101st Airborne Division that fought in the 1968-69 Tet offensive, during which the Viet Cong launched a massive attack against American troops. He took my hand in greeting and held it in both of his. He gazed at me in earnest.

“Listen,” he said, “you make sure the VA takes good care of you. They’re supposed to do that. They’re there for you. I get great care through the VA.”

“Then, why are you here?”

“For a friend,” he answered. “The VA will take care of you,” he continued, “you make sure of it. OK?” He kept my hand in his.

“All right,” I said. “I’ll make sure of it.”

“That’s it!” He patted my shoulder, let me go, and went back to the waiting room.

I saw a dermatologist two months later. He removed the mole for biopsy and it turned out benign. Safe, for now.

In time, the unhappy PA moved on and now I see a real doctor at the VA clinic. I have more peace of mind knowing he’s monitoring my vitals and checking the spots on my skin. I see a dermatologist almost every six months. In a pinch, at least, I won’t have to wait a year.

My worries, finally, had more to do with the PA’s unhappiness than with how the VA cares for vets. But how was I supposed to know? I thought that’s how the system worked. Had it not been for that vet, I would have thought the worst about government healthcare.

There have been horror stories of vets who failed to receive adequate care but overall it appears to be a system that works pretty well. As I say, it’s better than having no care at all.

Those who argue against a government-sponsored healthcare plan could probably point to any number of flaws in the system, but a plan not unlike the one we provide our veterans seems a perfectly sensible one to me.

When panic attacks come, I can assure myself of prompt access to the doctor when I need him. I have access to a qualified physician who monitors my health, can tell me what’s going on, and who, I hope, will send me to a specialist whenever it becomes necessary.

If we could make the same commitment to the millions of American citizens without insurance as we do our veterans, we might begin to find a way to a solution for our national healthcare problems.

After some thought, I was able to laugh at the monster again. I decided not to call the doctor today. I'm not worried about getting 86'd from life. The sore in my mouth, I realized, is a cut from a cracker I ate. If it doesn't go away, though, I'll call the VA. §