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.” §

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