Monday, January 18, 2010

Aldolfo's grief

Aldolfo’s cellphone rang and he began an animated conversation in Spanish.

His mother died last week. I can’t be sure but I think he was trying to explain to a sibling why he wouldn’t be attending her memorial.

The day his mother died, Aldolfo asked if there was any work. I’d told him to take it easy. Nothing to do until mañana.

He left, appearing content, even though money and food were low and his mother was sick in a hospital in Mexico. He returned less than an hour later.

“Mi Madre,” he began, and let loose the saddest string of Spanish words I’d ever heard, even though technically I didn’t understand them.

The message, however, was clear: His mother was dead.

He’d received the message on his cellphone minutes earlier. He began to sob, I put my arm around his neck and he embraced me. Tears fell for a moment. Then he told me he still wanted to work the next day, and sadly turned away to walk home.

Unable to travel, he is the only child who can’t attend her memorial in Mexico. He’s stuck with me working on the farm.

“Maybe Decembré,” he said when I asked him the next day if he planned to go home for his mother’s memorial service.

“December!” That’s almost a year from now, I told him.

“No denaro.” He can’t go anywhere, with no money, or car. Like me, he’s stuck, living in a trailer across from the packinghouse. His sister lives a few strides up the dirt road in a home with a family of her own. They haven’t been around.

I’m guessing she’s with others—in L.A. or Mexico, I’m not sure. Her husband, who was already in Mexico and about to return home, is staying on a few days to assist the in-laws, according to Aldolfo.

I don't speak Spanish, but I'm beginning to understand him more as we both use signs, signals and Spanglish to converse. 

The lack of money was starting to get to Aldolfo. He’d asked me several times when he was going to get paid. He seemed worried, agitated.

“No denaro, no comida!” he exclaimed.

“You’ve got no food, Aldolfo?”


I’ll do what I can, I responded. I don’t make the payments. I’ll let the boss know right away, I told him, which I did.

I brought him some comida, tamales and pintos the next day. I bought them with the last bit of denaro, about $10 in cash, which I had until my own payday. I understood his frustration, but I also wondered if he wasn’t playing me, if he wasn’t making a fool of me. How could he not have any food?

I’m a sucker for hard cases. I figured it was better to err on the side of foolishness than see a grown man go hungry. So I brought him food.

When his phone rang, we were moving about 500 heavy, water-laden, soil-filled, 5-gallon grow bags into place, a task that wouldn’t have been necessary had Aldolfo set them up the way I had shown him from the start.

This has happened before, where I’ve demonstrated how to perform a task, explaining verbally and showing physically how to do it, and he continues to do it another way.

He watches me as I explain how to move the bags so we don’t trip over the spaghetti tubing that feeds the plants.

I know he doesn’t understand me. “Aldolfo,” I say, “move the bags closer to where the tubes come out of the line so people and dogs won’t trip over them and break them. OK?”

I demonstrate tripping by pretending to catch my foot on the loop. "OK?" I ask.

I move the heavy bag so that it protects the connectors, prevents the loops from catching people’s legs and feet. He nods OK, indicating he understands. He goes after it, slowly moving the bags into place.

He misses a bag. I don’t get on him about it. I can move it later. But I’m amazed at how quickly he lets one go. Maybe it’s sloppiness, a failure to notice, a failure to care—or grief. I can’t be sure.

I had broken two connections the day before. Working alone, I tripped over the tubing and broke the connectors, which snapped right off.

I held a can of spray paint under my arm; I was marking the broken connections. When I bent over to pick up the loose spaghetti tubing I’d just broken, I managed to blast the paint into my face and eye.

My head already hurt and my eyes felt sore in the light, like a hangover, from the moment I’d awakened that morning. A friend told me it was a reaction to the radical pressure changes in advance of several storm systems about to slam onto California's southern coastline.

Each time I bent over, my head would ache and pound. I’d already adjusted 200 plants and felt terrible. The paint blast to the face put me over the top and I threw the can as far as I could in a fit of anger.

I was mad at Aldolfo for not doing what I’d asked him to do in the first place, and mad at myself for not watching him more closely. I was mad for not paying attention to how I was holding the spray can, and mad for doing work that wasn’t necessary, for picking up after Aldolfo with a splitting headache.

“It’s like watching a child,” the boss said once.

My newest neighbor, recently relocated from Arizona where he managed his father’s vineyard, said: “I hate to sound prejudiced or anything but sometimes I think they do it because it’s job security.”

You mean the workers purposely do things the wrong way so they’ll have work?

“Yeah,” he said, without hesitating, “I think they’re a lot smarter than we give them credit. They pretend not to understand and that way they can keep working.”

If that’s true, I said, they should be laughing at us stupid gringos.

“They are,” he said.

Aldolfo wasn’t laughing. When he hung up the phone, I heard a loud snapping sound, as though one of the bags had been suddenly pulled apart.

I turned and saw the top half of the heavy bag torn in two places where his hands had just tried to pick it up. He stood over the bag, back hunched over, arms hanging at his sides. He seemed frustrated, angry, defeated.

Until that point there hadn’t been any mishaps moving the bags, even though Aldolfo had continued to try lifting them instead of sliding them over the way I had shown him.

I stood up and walked over to him. “Are you OK, Aldolfo?”

He nodded his head, “Yes.” His eyes were red with grief and fury.

I watched as he continued to move the bags, he was listless and unhappy. I didn’t have the heart to tell him to go home. He needed the work as much—maybe more—than I did.§

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Feeling like new

I’ve always felt like a beginner.

As if I have to learn the world new every day.

I’d like to believe it’s because I have a beginner’s mind, a person who’s willing to learn. More likely, it’s because I’m inept; or, because I abuse myself too much.

My beginner’s mind has serious flaws. I do the same things over again and still can’t get them right. Or, I hurt myself in the process.

On the positive side, everything I do feels new. I’ve got a million questions, and nothing quite satisfies me. I want to know more about anything that holds my interest.

I put time into things that matter to me. I avoid the treadmill of modern life as much as possible. Consequently, I end up in unexpected places—like working on a farm—with little or no experience.

Or, running an independent magazine. Washing windows. Installing landscapes. Working at home. Staying out of the rat race. Unfortunately, living this way doesn’t work well in a rat-race culture that places a premium on cutthroat competition and greed.

So, mostly I’ve been poor, doing what I love but broke, living on the good will and charity of friends.

It can be rough at times, explaining why I don’t have this month’s rent, or keeping my fingers crossed so that my truck doesn’t break down.

The stress of coming up short takes away from some of the rewards of choosing what matters. But I suspect it’s better than the No Exit strategies and career paths most people take in today’s corporate world.

I’ve met few people who actually love their corporate jobs; more often they’ve used their positions and experience to launch their own independent careers, doing what they love best.

I’ve avoided corporate America, which I abhor. I’ve never established any credentials there, nor climbed its ladders, genuflected in its inner chambers. I’ve chosen instead to go my own way—living a kind of rogue’s life.

It’s no easy thing.

Going against the tide poses its own share of risks and traps, such as being poor, dependent on others, without adequate healthcare or enough food to eat, or setting myself up with false expectations where I have to be somebody.

I’ve tried to be a lot of things and have been mostly disappointed. Still, I’ve enjoyed, as Sarah Palin recently discovered, going rogue, doing things my way.

The idea of being a rogue, however, is just another one of those attachments, another thing to think about, worry about—another pigeonhole.

I want to live free from these kinds of traps, but also from dread, suicide bombers, economic collapse, jobs that only pay $12 an hour, obsessing over money, popularity ratings and HuffPost’s Top 10 lists.

What troubles me more than anything isn’t my lack so much as our culture’s lack of memory, its penchant for the trivial and its obsession with the wealthy, names, reality television and being somebody.

Only now, it seems, am I beginning to learn, as a farmhand, that some things are more important.

I like Hank’s Chinaski’s complaint in Charles Bukowski’s Barfly: “Somebody laid down this rule that everybody’s got to do something, be something—a dentist, a glider pilot, a narc, a janitor, a preacher. All that.”

Hank’s tired of thinking about all the things he doesn’t want to be, of all the things he doesn’t want to do.

“You’re not supposed to think about it,” Jim, the bartender, tells him. “I think the whole trick is not to think about it.”

I try not to think about what I do or what I don’t want to do either, but I can’t avoid it. I’m cutting dripline, trimming, planting, learning to speak Spanish. Does that make me a farmhand? Gardener? Farmer? Linguist?

I’m no farmer. I hate doing books and worrying about money. It’s enough to care for the crops. I love working with plants, almost as much as running a magazine. But I’m no gardener. And on it goes….

I’m open to change. I’m not attached to living on the fringe. I’m not attached to appellations like rogue. I wouldn’t mind moving up a notch or two above the poverty level.

Jim’s right, though; you’re not supposed to think about it, especially in a culture that’s more obsessed and trivial now than Bukowski could ever have imagined.

I’ll stick with a stubborn refusal to cave, and imagine like Chinaski that there’s more to life than doing something or being someone. All that.
It’s OK, I guess, to feel like a beginner, to approach things with a beginner’s mind, the unfettered mind, the one that, as Jim says, doesn’t think about it. §

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Make me laugh

Is that Edible SLO  and Hope Dance Online publisher Bob Banner flipping the bird with (or is it at) UC Berkeley Good Food Guru Michael Pollan?

It sure is.

Today’s “Biz Buzz” in the San Luis Obispo County Tribune notes that Banner is teaching a yoga class based on laughter.

Banner, with whom I’ve worked off and on for several years, is a certified instructor from the American School of Laughter and offers laugh sessions throughout the county, the Tribune reports.

“It’s simple, fun and good for you, and anyone can participate,” Banner told Biz Buzz. “Laughing, even when faking it, releases endorphins, which are feel-good hormones, bringing positive effects to the mind and body.”

Sessions go for 45 minutes, 30 of which reportedly include “energetic laughing and playfulness exercises, and then concludes with a laughter meditation.”

I probably won’t attend the laughing yoga classes.

I really don’t need to when I can just pick up the winter print edition of Banner’s Edible SLO, and turn to the photo on page 4. The publisher’s “Food For Thought” column shows him with a big smile, flipping the bird, with Professor Pollan, about whom there is no mention, standing at his side.

Perhaps the pair decided to express their anger at Harris Ranch for raising such a stink over unflattering comments Pollan made about its meat operations with a big shit-howdy smile and a hearty old, "Fuck you!"

It appears more of a faux pas than sour grapes. Or, is it? In either case, it’s good for a laugh. Good enough to be included in Banner's yoga class.

Most likely, it’s sloppy editing that permitted the publication of the photo. Banner holds a copy of a previous issue of his magazine in one hand, and two glasses of wine in the other hand, which has its middle finger extended. 

The image suggests what Pollan might have been feeling that night: "Hey assholes! Look who's laughing now!”  

What a great way to start Banner's next yoga class: Hang the picture on the wall, meditate on Harris Ranch, and start laughing. The feel-good hormones will begin flowing, and no one will have to fake it.§