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. §