Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California

After an afternoon touring the fields of Oak Hill Farm, learning how they transplant thousands of onions by hand, seeing the beehives, tasting the carrots, I noticed this book being purchased by the woman ahead of me in line at the Red Barn, where Oak Hill sells produce directly to people. It documents life behind the scenes at Oak Hill, along with other Sonoma farms. The topic was of enough interest to me that I read the entire poorly-written book.
The author is in desperate need of an editor, but excuses himself in the introduction, claiming he has not “cleaned up or beautified the furrows” of his story. No kidding. I choked this book down purely because of the appeal of Oak Hill Farm, and strained myself with so many eye rolls at the pomposity and tone-deaf assertions. His treatment of Sharon Grossi is only the tip of the iceberg (“Did she perhaps want to show her ex-husband that she could succeed without him?” No, you idiot, perhaps she simply liked farming). Let’s just go ahead and label him clueless, with the following examples:
He’s a 65-year old lech:

Just then another young woman arrived, sporting a pierced nose and with her hair in dreadlocks. She had a beautiful mouth… I had to know her name. She was planning to prepare raw food to sell at a three-day reggae festival… “When I set up my booth, it’s all about the visuals,” she said. “It’s all about what attracts the eye.” Everything about her certainly attracted the eye… And right on cue, Marvin Gaye’s voice filled the Red Barn. Shoppers began to sway thir hips back and forth. Genevieve certainly did, and I might have continued my conversation with her if Anne Teller hadn’t arrived just then. p 72-73

He’s sexist:
“Malu had taken the reins from him at the Sonoma farm, where she now supervised a small crew of workers that included her own father. No one seemed to mind a woman at the helm.” p 127
“Miguel took what was at hand and gave us his best impression of a woman. He grabbed two onions, placed them on his chest, squeezed them, and at the same time puckered his lips and rolled his eyes. He was perfect. ‘Guapo,’ I said, which brought even more laughter.” p 183
He’s a snoop:
“We parked and went inside the workers’ house, where half a dozen men live… Inside the refrigerator were a six-pack of Corona, corn tortillas, and cheese.” p 138
He’s kind of stupid:
When interviewing the owner of Oak Hill farm, “almost as an afterthought, I asked Anne about herself…” Genius at work on page 75.
He’s a bad writer:

I felt that I had been down on the farm too long and that, with the end of summer approaching, it was time for a weekend of riotous city living in “Baghdad by the Bay.” That’s what famed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen called San Francisco to capture in a phrase the city’s mix of exotic, polyglot neighborhoods. But with the United States at war in Baghdad and all across Iraq, and with American troops waging a seemingly endless war against terrorism around the globe, the phrase no longer seemed appropriate. p 187

Then thanks for using the phrase and going on an unrelated diatribe.
He’s an elitist:

“We’re going to have to find a different way to consume. We’ll need to think about the environment and our long-term ride on the earth for future generations.” Coming from Sam Josi, the global financier turned chef, these words about consumption and the environment meant more to me than if they’d come from a fiery environmental activist or one of the many San Francisco anarchists who denounce corporations and globalization. p 192

He’s kind of creepy:

On warm nights in August and September, the arms and shoulders of the women were bare, and I was reminded of sensuous nights in Provence and the feeling of the Mediterranean. The most beautiful women in the world shop at the Tuesday night market. It seemed so easy – fair easier than I had imagined – to make a woman (or a man, for that matter) happy with the beauty and abundance of the produce… p 229

Did I mention he’s a bad writer?

That also proved to be true of Arden Bucklin-Sporer, who lives in San Francisco and works for the school district. Arden – the name suggests the Forest of Arden and the word “garden” with the letter “g” lopped off – started and now nurtures the gardens-in-the-schools program… p 156

He’s tone-deaf to his own racism:

Born in 1950 in Mexico, Miguel Barrios has worked in agriculture ever since he was a boy… he came to the United States… He became an American citizen, though how he passed the test I can’t imagine. He speaks barely a word of English.
Miguel’s story is common enough; millions of men and women have stories like his. He is one of many, and in many ways he wears a cloak of invisibility – much like the invisibility that Valde and his son Jesus took on when they wore their hoods in the fields at Oak Hill. Those hoods seemed emblematic of their status in society and their place in our culture… I was surprised by the farmworker habit of covering up the body in both summer heat and winter cold. At times I thought they might actually be seeking anonymity, though my friend Uriel assures me that this isn’t the case. Mexicans cover up to protect themselves against the sun, he insists, not to hide. p 104-105

I can only assume Uriel is rolling his eyes on the other end of the phone line.

I didn’t want to make Miguel and his compatriots into invisible men, and I told myself not to think of him or them as “Mexican.” I listened to them closely and watched them carefully. In a sense, I took photos of them – but without turning them into picturesque subjects. I saw their individuality, recognized their own unique rhythms of work and speech, and grew to appreciate their grace and beauty in the fields. Miguel Barrios was Miguel Barrios, just as Paul Wirtz was not the “German Catholic Farmer” from the Midwest but Paul Wirtz.

This guy’s day job is to teach people how to write. Let that one sink in.

The Fault in our Stars

It is not often that I stumble on a book that pins me to the sofa and forbids me from looking up even once until finished. My phone continued to buzz as I buried my nose in this book, pages flying, choking up, laughing, smirking, until it was over. A fantastically written book from the perspective of a sixteen year old girl with terminal cancer. Hazel meets a boy, Augustus, at her support group; she’s got oxygen tubes up her nose to help her breathe, he’s got an amputated leg, but otherwise they are an attractive, clever couple. She dazzles him with her repartee and love of great literature, most notably the fictional An Imperial Affliction by the fictional author Peter Van Houten. Green begins the book with a quote from this fake book:

As the tide washed in, the Dutch Tulip Man faced the ocean: “Conjoiner rejoinder poisoner concealer revelator. Look at it, rising up and rising down, taking everything with it.” “What’s that?” I asked. “Water,” the Dutchman said. “Well, and time.”

The book (Imperial Affliction) deals with a girl who has cancer and her gardening mom (obsessed with tulips), who start a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera. Hazel introduces Augustus to the book and they mutually obsess over it, ending with a trip to Amsterdam to meet the reclusive author who spews obscenities at them. The author inexplicably ends up at Augustus’ funeral (oops, spoiler, but what do you expect from a book where both main characters are fighting cancer) and Hazel exhorts him to stop drinking and churn out another book.
Highly recommended for all ages.

The Trial

In the wake of revelations of the compilation by the government of a permanent database about people’s activities from disparate online sources, two books have been bandied about as necessary reads: 1984 and The Trial. I re-read 1984 a few years ago, but had never dipped into The Trial. Swinging by my local library to pick up a copy, I noticed that all computer screens were on the same site. It’s official, the homeless have found refuge in FB.
Josef K is accosted/arrested at home one morning by two men who will not reveal what the charge is. They claim to be too low level to have any knowledge of the matter, but that the higher levels never make any mistake. Forced to remain in his room, he is then summoned to join the inspector in another boarder’s room (Fraulein Burstner) where he is told that he is arrested, with no specific charge, and is to go about his business as usual. K is a high level officer at the bank, so heads out to work intending to laugh off the whole experience. As the months go by, he begins to unravel, becoming fixated on his trial, hiring a lawyer who claims to be greasing the wheels behind the scenes but that the time isn’t right for a petition. Ultimately, two men come for him and kill him, looking into his eyes to see how he takes the verdict.

There couldn’t be much doubt about what they would do. Signs of it could already be seen in the fact that the first petition had still not been submitted, although the trial had already lasted for months, and that according to the lawyer everything was still in the beginning stages, which was of course admirably suited to lull the defendant to sleep and keep him in a state of helplessness, so that they could assault him suddenly with the verdict, or at least announce that the inquiry had concluded unfavorably for him and was being passed on to higher administrative authorities.
For once the court was going to run into a defendant who knew how to stand up for his rights.
The petition had to be written. If he couldn’t find time at the office, which was quite likely, he would have to do it nights at home. And if the nights weren’t sufficient, he would have to take a leave of absence. Anything but stop halfway, that was the most senseless course of all, not only in business, but anywhere, at any time. Admittedly, the petition meant an almost endless task. One needn’t be particularly faint of heart to be easily persuaded of the impossibility of ever finishing the petition. Not because of laziness or deceit, the only things that kept the lawyer from finishing, but because without knowing the nature of the charge and all its possible ramifications, his entire life would have to be called to mind, described, and examined from all sides.

On Doing What One Likes

This excerpt from Alex Waugh’s 1926 collection of essays, On Doing What One Likes, is pretty fantastic.

We should treat our spare time as we treat our income. A man has a limited sum of money to spend on his amusements, and he has at the beginning of the year to decide which of his tastes he will be able to indulge. “I like cigars,” he may say, “and I like champagne. But I cannot afford both, and as I prefer cigars, I will content myself with Chablis.” In the same way should a man say, “I like books and I like pictures, but I have not the time for both and I prefer books. I like bridge and I like dancing, but I prefer dancing; I like Jones and I like Brown, but I prefer Brown.” And the wise man will concentrate on books, on dancing and on Brown. A philosophy of intelligent selfishness.

The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus

This is a collection of private lamentations during the war and while recovering from a devastating breakup. It is interspersed with nuggets of wisdom from the great minds of history, choice aphorisms to live by. It is highly digestible, but the reader should be aware that Connolly makes no concessions to us non-French speakers, freely quoting Pascal, Baudelaire, etc. in the original French.

The secret of happiness (and therefore of success) is to be in harmony with existence, to be always calm, always lucid, always willing, ‘to be joined to the universe without being more conscious of it than an idiot’, to let each wave of life wash us a little farther up the shore.

O sacred solitary empty mornings, tranquil meditation – fruit of book-case and clock-tick, of note-book and arm-chair; golden and rewarding silence, influence of sun-dappled plane-trees, far-off noises of birds and horses, possessions beyond price of a few cubic feet of air and an hour of leisure! This vacuum of peace is the state from which art should proceed, for art is made by the alone for the alone…

In that dream of approaching forty I felt that I was about to die and became aware that I was no longer myself, but a creature inhabited entirely by parasites, a caterpillar infested by grubs of the ichneumon fly. Gin, whisky, sloth, fear, guilt, tobacco, had been appointed my inquilines; alcohol sloshed about within, while tendrils of melon and vine spread out from ear and nostril. My mind was a worn gramophone record, my true self was such a shadow as to seem non-existent and all this had taken place in the last three years.