JANE ROSENTHAL’S DEL RIO: AND THE SEEDS OF A FICTIONAL WORK    

JANE ROSENTHAL’S DEL RIO: THE SEEDS OF A FICTIONAL WORK

I met Jane Rosenthal during a Women’s Fiction Writers (WFWA) retreat in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We were both living in California at the time, enjoyed each other’s company, our love of writing, and discussed the inevitable struggle of getting published.  

And today, I’m pleased to present to you, Jane’s second published work, DEL RIO, a Novel. I hope you will enjoy reading about Jane’s process and how personal experience contributed to her vision for this story.

Jane’s Voice: My novel Del Rio is set in a fictional town in the Central Valley of California, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Central Valley is a place made up of small towns, near where I lived, towns so accessible that they were where I went to get my hair styled, grocery shop or go to the bank. This particular town, Del Rio, doesn’t really exist, except in my imagination.

One of the best compliments I ever received for my manuscript occurred when I was pitching the book at a conference. An editor, looking over his glasses at me, pronounced: “Wow, so do you live in Del Rio?”

The place seemed that real to him. And in a way, it is. Writing is a journey, and this book took me on one.

JANE’S REALIZATION THAT MUCH OF DEL RIO WAS NORTH OF THE BORDER …

Jane says: One Saturday a few years back, something happened that changed the whole trajectory of the book. I’d gone into town to do errands. But when I got to Wells Fargo Bank, the line was out the door. That had never happened before. But I’d never been there on a Saturday, mid-month, payday for the farm workers. It didn’t take long before I realized I was the only native English speaker in the entire line.

A lightbulb exploded in my head. I didn’t need to go south, at least in the book, to be in Mexico. I WAS on the west coast of Mexico. Right then, right there. After I made my deposit, I headed to my office, to sit down and write the first sentence that would become Del Rio.

That sentence came easily: Fletcher wanted me to meet him at the Starlight Lounge, an old roadhouse set on the banks of the San Joaquin River, a few miles south of town.

This was the voice of Callie, my protagonist. And even though Del Rio starts and ends in California, Callie travels to the west coast of Mexico, to a fishing village called San Benito, a place that is Night of the Iguana on steroids. Her mission: to search for a killer.

Then Jane reminds us: You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens once Callie gets there!

FICTION THAT SHOUTS FOR ACTION

Jane’s book is a fascinating read. She tells us: I’d intended when I first started on this Mexico Trilogy to set the second book solely on the west coast of Mexico. I’d been to Mexico’s Pacific coast many times and loved its “Night of the Iguana” feel. I wanted to give the reader that atmosphere, but a totally different feel and cast of characters from the Mexico City setting I had recreated in Palace of the Blue Butterfly. (get it on Amazon)

But then she saw that the seeds of her story were literally planted in the United States.

CENTRAL VALLEY, CALIFORNIA WORKERS–WHAT THEY NEED AND DON’T HAVE: BACKGROUND INFORMATION….

  • Farmworkers are not protected under the National Labor Relations Laws (NLRA).
  • Farmworkers are exempt from many protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA). Exempt from most minimum wage and hour guarantees.
  • They are not entitled to overtime pay or mandatory breaks for rest or meals
  • There are few labor protections for farmworker children.
  • Most farmworkers are excluded from federal minimum wage laws and other labor protections, including the right to overtime pay for workers that work more than 40 hrs./wk.
  • FWs are not protected from retaliation by federal law when engaged in labor organizing.
  • They are not entitled to receive attorney fees under the Migrant and Seasonal Ag. Worker Protection Act.
  • Many FWs on small farms don’t even have access to toilets and hand-washing facilities and drinking water.
  • There is a Lack of Transparency in the Food system.

The Fair Labor Standards Act is supposed to protect all workers with respect to the federal minimum wage and overtime pay, even undocumented workers.  However, workers have little or no way to enforce their rights.

FINAL THOUGHTS 

Read Del Rio for a great story, as well as a look into the dangerous games being played, the innocent lives being risked. Because it is happening, right before our eyes.

And if moved by Rosenthall’s experience, the words in her book, the information I have provided here, please go to https://farmworkerfamily.org/information  and donate. For more information that conflicts with above, go to: http://www.lacooperativa.org/farm-workers-know-your-rights-in-the-workplace/

P.S. California produces over 350 commodities; including 1/3 of the nation’s vegetables and nearly 2/3 of the nation’s fruits and nuts. California produces 90% of the strawberries grown in the U.S. Between 1/3 and 1/2 of all farmworkers in America reside in California, or roughly 500,000 – 800,000 farmworkers. Approximately 75% of California’s farmworkers are undocumented; 83% in Santa Cruz County. Approximately 1/3 are women, and they range in age from their teens to their 60s. In addition, there are 400,000 children working in U.S. fields;

BACK IN CHICAGO…

BACK IN CHICAGO...

The ability to love everyone starts with children. We are blank slates. We see the world bathed in equality—until, as we grow, we begin to become aware of differences. Or they are pointed out to us. Regardless, there is always hope.

In a world where we are truly now a global nation, where we could look like the United Nations, differences should not be an issue.

But there is something in an individual’s DNA that makes them cling to those first times when we see differences or feel different or are taught to claim a difference. Why? I don’t have an answer. 

EVERYONE HAS SOME PREJUDICE 

There are people on this earth who claim that they have no prejudices. That everything in their purview is equal. I say, that’s impossible. Maybe you are or have always been comfortable with the differences that exist in humanity regarding skin color. Awesome. Wonderful. But I proport there isn’t a person walking this earth that isn’t prejudiced in some way. And it may be as simple as food choices.

Because life is about choice and within each of us is some small voice telling us that THIS is better than THIS. It just depends on what we are talking about. But we must be honest.

HOW PREJUDICE BEGINS 

As a child, I lived on the southside of Chicago. But—in a neighborhood that was all white. The people of color I knew were few. There was Jenny, the Sioux Native American who cared for us when we were very young. (read here). And there were the two Black women who cleaned and ironed for us. (read: here.)

OPENING MY EYES

But what did I notice as I grew up in Chicago? (I am doing my best to be honest.)

  • That all our neighbors, the people who worked in stores, the kids in school, the people in church, our doctors—they were all white.
  • That when my mother drove me through neighborhoods to downtown Chicago (before the city built the Dan Ryan Expressway, which was geographically laid out to separate many Black neighborhoods from white ones) that the sidewalks were crowded with people walking; that there were people missing limbs, people in wheel chairs, maybe even people who had lost hope. READ: people who had to rely on public transportation; people without good healthcare. People who lived in food deserts and healthcare deserts. Please note that in certain decades THE CAR was everything. This was before we began to look on public transportation as a positive way to travel. I did live three blocks from the Rock Island train that zipped my mother into Chicago for her job. From that train, I could look out upon housing, old apartments, yards bare of grass, sometimes filled with trash… Okay—poverty.

What did I notice during my years of education?

  • Well, I’m certain I would never have looked around for a Black child in my grade school. That possibility wasn’t even on our radar. There were two girls in my class whose skin was actually tan all year long: read, darker than mine. Damn, that I noticed that. Is there something in our DNA that points that out?
  • But after high school, working in the city every summer in downtown Chicago, the variety of people along the sidewalks was fascinating.

What did I notice off and on just living and working in Chicago and its suburbs?

  • That even though I was white, there were sales women in high-end stores that were not interested in helping me return a blouse or search for a size. Because prejudice can move through all tribes—I obviously wasn’t dressed in a way that indicated my buying power. That memory still stings. But GET OVER IT, You Privileged White Woman.
  • That working in an integrated high school in Chicago Heights, Illinois and then much later working as an RN at Mercy Hospital in the Bronzeville area of Chicago, were some of the best years of my life. If there was some ignorant, leery, unsure person hidden inside me—those career choices made me push her aside.

MY FIRST JOB INTERVIEW 

“Some of our students have knives,” the Superintendent of the high school where I was interviewing told me. I needed the job. I said that was okay. I spoke out of ignorance. What did I know about dealing with a student who might be carrying a knife? I learned to be open and caring of all my students. Was I lucky? Yes. But there were so many students throughout my teaching years that showed me their humanity.

It was the same at Mercy Hospital when I first started working in maternity. I might be nervous walking into a room to help a stranger deliver her child. But the bond of the female species, of motherhood, of helping someone in pain—damn, humanity was flowing through those rooms and continued to do so.

NOTE: It is 2021, and thank God, Mercy Hospital, that will always serve minority families, was saved from the wrecking ball. But close by in Bronzeville, Michael Reese Hospital did not survive. (read: Life and Death in Englewood by Linda Villarosa, New York Times.) 

WHEN THINGS CAME TOGETHER–FOR ME

“Gresham went over night.” You would have to live in Chicago (or maybe a different urban city) to know what THE HELL that means. Translation: the white folks moved out and the Black folks moved in. THIS IS OUR HISTORY. It’s Chicago’s history and it is the history of many cities in this country. It is wrong. 

Other terms are contained in one blistering sentence (a friend said this): “Yes, for sure there is gentrification going on in that neighborhood, cause they are getting rid of the slum.”

Definition of Slum: a densely populated usually urban area marked by crowding, run-down housing, poverty, and social disorganization. 

Actual Definition: an area of a city where people unable to find good-paying jobs are forced to live. And regarding history, people of color are forced to live there, a place where houses are abandoned because of job loss; stores and hospitals close. When I grew up, the hospital where I was born was a quick drive away. I took that for granted. Again, from a recent article in the New York Times: Now you drive through communities like Englewood and see empty lot after empty lot…  And I recently learned that the south suburbs of Chicago do NOT have a trauma center. They have hospitals, but not a trauma center. The trauma center is   Christ Advocate Trauma Center which is three miles from me, within the city limits. 

EDUCATING MYSELF BY READING…

There was James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker. But now there is Ta-Nehisi Coates. Thanks to my daughter-in-law, I read BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME. Then I read WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER, which wasn’t just about the Obama era, but about Reconstruction, the freedoms initially given to freed people of color and then taken away. The continuation of brutality, of lynching and home burning. The device of red-lining which is to refuse (a loan or insurance) to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk. Short version, because they are Black. 

When Black folks left the South, looking for employment and better lives for their families, white men devised ways to isolate them in run-down neighborhoods, to prevent the breadwinner of the family from getting ahead. White people have always been able to get ahead by buying a home for their family, which provides them with shelter, but also the possibility of increasing their initial investment.

Getting ahead is the key to everything, for everyone. In America, each one of us should have that chance.

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?              

From Kitchenette Building by Chicago Black poet, Gwendolyn Brooks

PS Fighting prejudice must be an ongoing but oh so worthy effort. 

Photo: Monument in Bronzeville, Chicago, Illinois. Honoring the World War I 8th Regiment of the Illinois National Guard.

Decorating Inspiration: This Week, Mary Engelbreit

Decorating Inspiration: This Week, Mary Engelbreit

Decorating Inspiration: This Week, Mary Engelbreit

Every house I have ever lived in, inspires me to create a HOME. But wow–over time, have my tastes changed. I’m old enough to have lived in the avocado green & harvest gold period. This was our first house, a track house with spring green carpeting and touches of orange and gold everywhere. I even painted my antique wicker desk orange. (I still have that lovely desk and now it is properly white.)

Our second house went through many stages: from a yellow living room to a lovely federal blue. From orange shag carpeting in the family room to oatmeal Berber. During negotiations on our third home, I walked out the door, unable to picture how this house with great bones could actually become a home. But after conceding and after a total remodel, the house became everything I wanted. But life changed, my husband took a job in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Cape Cod in Des Moines will probably remain my favorite. But following the usual pattern, it needed a lot of work. That’s when I discovered Mary Engelbreit, her ability to transform each room so that it reveals your personality, highlights the things you love.

The smallest bedroom had not been touched in years. So—I painted the walls a soft light gold and sponged on deeper shades for texture. The trim was white. I hung Belgium lace valences on the windows and a quilt behind the bed to serve as a headboard. I sanded an old chest, only to bring it down to “pedimento”– revealing was was underneath–blue. New hardware highlighted that color. I  hung a copy of a Picasso print from his blue period, and used white whicker baskets to hold pillows and shawls. A drawing of a picnic on laminated pressboard became a table when I set it on top of a luggage rack. I loved to tell anyone that admired the room: “Nothing in this room is new. I just dug in my closets.” I wish I had a photo of it to show you. 

Many of my ideas were fueled by reading Engelbreit’s books and looking at endless photos of her transformations. It was great fun and the bones of the house were perfect for the style of that time. (Next week: Rachel Ashwell’s Shabby Chic) 

Below, more Ideas from Mary Engelbreit: All photos are of rooms done by Engelbreit–they are not my rooms.

Hoping to Smell the Roses

Hoping to Smell the Roses

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I save things. Like a piece from the magazine “Loyola Chicago”, written by Hannah Rockwell. Like the above photo that accompanied it. 

Rockwell is reacting to many things, but stresses the proliferation of enclosed malls in the United States–because when the piece was written, malls “outnumbered cities, four-year colleges, hospitals, hotels or movie theaters.” Rockwell sees this proliferation of wandering, shopping, as a metaphor for the WORLD OF WANTING. And then she stresses that “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that children in our country under the age of 15 are 12 times more likely to be killed by gunfire than children in the top-25 industrial countries.” 

Rockwell wants us to see that we must recognize how much we actually have, cherish all that has come to us. She wants us to live simply, be present to our own experience, help pass these important messages on to our children. She wants us to “smell the roses.”

SO TODAY… I want that too. I want that for all of America, but I also know that today, we are at a precipice. The roses are fading for many of us. Voices across the country are coming together loud and clear:

Jennifer Senior: 45 has normalized selfishness.

L. Friedman: The whole world has gotten darker.

Roger Cohen: He severed America from the idea of America.

Michelle Goldberg: Four years of cultural impoverishment.

David Brooks: Smashing the ‘decency floor.’

Maureen Dowd: It’s exhausting to be this outraged all the time.

Charles M. Blow: How could we have been so blind?

Ross Douthat: Have we learned nothing?

Farhad Manjoo: He shattered the comfortable bliss of not having to pay attention!

And there were those who were asked about their AMERICAN DREAM…

Kimberly Berry: The day I realized that no matter how hard I work or how smart and educated I am, as a Black woman in America I will always be perceived as invisible. 

Marcel Dzama: It’s paralyzing to consider how much we’ve lost in the last four years: the human lives, our democratic norms, the health of our planet. I was imagining a migrant child lost in a decaying earth of our doing. The death is staggering. 

SO THINK HARD ABOUT THE FUTURE OF AMERICA. Then, if you haven’t already, VOTE. We all want roses to bloom for our children and grandchildren. Thanks for reading. 

Photo Credit, Loyola Chicago Magazine Thanks to the NEW YORK TIMES for the quotes….

Autumn Is Here! Are you ready?

Autumn Is Here! Are you ready?

Autumn Is Here! Are you ready?

I bought mums—four lovely burnt orange ones. I hung a wreath of yellowed leaves. I found flowers in my garden to cut and bring inside that echo the colors of autumn. It’s early yet, but it’s coming. And now that I am in Chicago, autumn will mean more than decorating with orange and gold—it will mean winds and rain and putting the garden to bed, making sure we have a good heavy quilt and this year—seeing if one of the two fireplaces we now have really, truly works.

IDEAS ARE ALL AROUND US! 

No matter what part of our great country you live in, autumn is a wonderful time to test your decorating chops. Yes, I have the newest copy of Better Homes and Gardens. They always have great ideas and there have been times I’ve lingered in the grocery store, just paging through Meredith publications (where I used to do copyediting for their magazines). They provide so many wonderful country or city how-to’s for the seasons, especially this one.

But my favorite go-to, and how-to person who you can follow online–is French Country Cottage, presented so beautifully by Courtney Allison. Courtney bought a run-down cottage near San Francisco, totally rebuilt and altered it, while building a blog, writing a book and taking amazing photographs as she proceeded. Her business flourished by incorporating furniture pieces from showrooms, but even better, by finding antiques and cast-offs and showing us that you can create amazing rooms with these–but even better by using what you have, and loving what you use—and always thinking FLOWERS, fresh or dried.

Today Courtney wrote: Chunky blankets, cups of warm cider, candles and a cozy fire in the fireplace. And home truly is our haven this year with spending so much more time right at home. Today is all about a simple autumn look in the dining room & tips for creating a cozy feeling in your home.

Here are a few of Courtney’s tips: Bring those muddy orange pumpkins inside for a bit of color while staying on the softer side of autumn. Forage your garden and yard to find dried elements that inspire you and create a gathered arrangement for autumn.

And my advice? Don’t forget the candles to warm the colors and cozy the mood. Above I’ve shared some of the throws and delights that I will be using as the wind picks up. And below is a photo of a modern home that brings the nostalgia of life on the farm alive once again.

Do you make changes in your home when autumn arrives?

What is your favorite way to celebrate the autumnal equinox?

Autumn Is Here! Are you ready?

Warmth and memories.

INCREASING the GOOD in the WORLD

 

 

 

I really do believe that there is much good in the world. But lately, I think we are finding it in different ways, in strange ways, because so much has highlighted our divisions because of COVID19.  People are reeling from change. Some are suffering: a trickle down effect that now feels like a tsunami. The small business you either own or work for closes. Your income, your savings dwindle. You can’t pay your rent or your parent dies and there are funeral expenses. NONE OF US CAN KNOW just how Covid 19 has affected the people we meet on the street, in the store, or who are raging online.

But I know that MY LIFE IN THE LAST THREE YEARS... has been devoted to my family, my writing, my garden.  And yet it has often found me angry.

Yes, I’m confessing. But, the only people who truly feel my anger are my patient husband and the relatives who agree with me. And my readers. (Thank you Readers.)

I did try to keep my own life on an even keel as I watched so many good things about the United States government being wiped out.

  • As I watched as men and women who were actually AGAINST a certain federal department were hired to run it–do everything they could to destroy its basic principals so that folks depending on getting help with school loans discovered they were out of luck.
  • Or those who believe that protecting the environment is crucial, who want to keep the earth healthy, watched as one by one protective measures were vetoed or quietly removed by the Department of the Interior. And those are only two examples.

WE KNEW THESE THINGS WERE HAPPENING. And If you cared to discover the truth, it was available to you. But many turned their backs on these changes because they believed in maybe one aspect of the current administration’s plans. I call that throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I call that being blind to the needs of all citizens.

REACTIONS TO GEORGE FLOYD’S DEATH

And then the disgusting and disgraceful murder of an American citizen, George Floyd, by members of the Minneapolis police department, occurred. People took to the streets to protest. And after some took advantage and looted, the tenor of things changed, people were bonding, coalescing, singing, and protecting one another from the police who sometimes used rubber bullets and tear gas to stop or control American citizens. I thank our citizens for their emotional power, for their coming together to protest, for their honoring a man who needlessly and cruelly lost his life at the hands of police.

SOME TAKE AWAYS…So what am I thinking today.

I am grateful to family and friends who saw the wrongs that have been occurring in our country and who shared my sadness, my anger, my questions. How can this still be happening, I keep asking? At the beginning of these last three years, there were people in my life who voted for 45. I tried to make them my friends, regardless. But I heard statements like:

It will be fun to have DJT for President.  Again, that’s not why we vote, to be entertained.

You just have to let that go.  Being told that when I confessed I was depressed about the situation at the border–no!! I don’t let those things go if I know with my voice and my vote I can change things to where they should be.

FINAL THOUGHTS 

I do believe there are always great things, good things happening along with the questionable, the disappointing. During these three years, I bonded with women who felt as I did and we worked with the League of Women Voters, volunteered to raise money for local charities, helped senior citizens, made phone calls for the candidates of our choice, and sent small toys and art supplies to the children at the border. I will always thank the Progressive Women of Congo Valley for their friendship and how we all bonded.

But life can sometimes feel like a MAZE OF DISAPPOINTMENT. First it was the president we got and now it’s the pandemic we got.

But yesterday, while trying to always be the good girl that my mother raised, I found my place on the red divider in the grocery store, six feet behind another woman. But then she turned. “Did I cut in front of you?” she asked. “Oh no,” I said across our space, “No, you’re just fine.” She smiled and faced her cart. But then seconds later, she turned around again, looked at me: “Are you sure?” I smiled. “Oh yes, I’m sure. You’re just fine.”

And then she went on to purchase her groceries, push her cart, wear her mask in this every changing MAZE we call life. I finished and followed, remembering that my mother always wanted me to grow up to be a “good girl.” DAMN, I’m trying. But sometimes you don’t know whether to be grateful or that it’s truly time to pour into the streets and scream: “THIS HAS TO STOP.”  “LET’S GET TOGETHER AND MAKE MORE GOOD IN THE WORLD”

COMFORT—IT HOVERS BETWEEN YES and NO!

Boston, Mass.

As I write, there are birds singing outside my window. The sun is shining. It’s in the seventies. A perfect California day. Comfort, YES. But it can quickly change to NO.

But there is also the unknown. That Life is not normal. (And please don’t stop reading, because I’m not going to sigh and moan. I am going to search between the positive and the negative.)

Life is not normal because of the unknown, because the enemy is invisible and yet seemingly everywhere. Pinning it down to fight it is no easy task. Being positive during the fight is no easy task. I believe that’s why people are getting angry, and many have decided to just give up.

They want life to go back to normal. They want to say YES to their past habits. Forget all this BS about staying six feet away and wearing face coverings. They want to say NO, I’m not going to do that anymore or NO, I’m never going to do that.

And then it gets all twisted up in the politics. If I leave my house, go to the beach, eat in a restaurant, I’m living my true American life—I’m FREE to do what I want. Do what I damn please. That’s what freedom is all about. America too.

ACTUALLY NO

Freedom doesn’t work if there are no rules. We no longer live in the so-called WILD WEST where people were armed and shot others without a moment’s thought. Or enslaved others: minorities, women, children. Freedom now lives in our country, precisely because we instituted laws and rules. Things are regulated. The food we eat; the clothing we wear, the vehicles we travel in—all are regulated by laws and inspections. And yes, we have choices within the confines of those regulations.

COMFORT—YES 

Only if you believe, as I do, in the necessity of regulations and inspections. They are part of your day to day comfort. If you’re told not to buy romaine lettuce because it’s contaminated—you don’t buy it. And you can’t SEE that on the lettuce.

Now we’re told not to be in crowded places with other humans because of COVID19. You can’t see the virus—same problem. So, I guess some people are comfortable buying the lettuce and going to the beach. It smacks of the same principle—this COVID19 virus thing. But I do know it’s damn  harder.

COMFORT—NO

No, I’m not comfortable with denying the words of the scientists, medical experts. If I leave my house and go into a public place, I will wear a mask. Currently, a medical-type mask. Maybe down the road, I’ll be satisfied with a pretty cloth mask. We have immune system issues in our family. And this morning I decided—because there are more and more people deciding to deny the virus and challenging people wearing masks, that if someone comes up to me and starts that argument—I’m going to say right out: I’m immune-compromised. And hope they just take off.

I’m going to be like the RN who was standing in line at the grocery store wearing her mask and a woman, out of nowhere, challenged her.

“You think that thing is going to protect from some damn virus?” the woman said in a loud voice.

The nurse immediately turned to her: “Yes. But I am really wearing this mask to protect you. I just came from working in the hospital.”

The loud-voiced woman immediately took off. The comfort scale for her at that moment was a NO!

COMFORT—YES or NO

So where are you on the comfort scale?  I have to tell you, Dear Reader, that it’s been tough on me. We are selling our home. What a time to have had strangers walking through. First, it was wiping down doorknobs and surfaces as soon as we could return home. Later, the state of California set up rules for realtors. That helped. But it’s still the last thing one could ever want to be dealing with—strangers in your house during a pandemic. Strangers making comments on forms after an inspection: you left a nail in a wall; you’re one window doesn’t open easily and there’s a line of chipped paint on that window sill. OKAY!! I just want to tell them all to get out of my house. Leave me alone. Let me shelter in place. I can handle this. I have been handling it. And yet, soon, it will be me looking at someone else’s home. I guess that’s just the way it is. COMFORT is somewhere in the “we are living in challenging times” middle. PLEASE, stay safe and share your thoughts. 

PHOTO CREDIT: Charles Krupa/AP 

THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM

THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM

When my husband and I moved to Des Moines, Iowa after a lifetime of Chicago living, it was a joy to drive out into farmland with my friend Cathy, to hear cows mooing, to find a garden center connected to a farm where you could buy the hardiest of cultivars for your own garden. I have always enjoyed “digging in the dirt” but my gardening prowess is limited. In Chicago I grew better vegetables in my backyard than I ever did in Iowa. Why? The deer ate my attempts.

Animals, pests, soil, weather–those of are just some of the challenges that John and Molly Chester encountered when they decided to leave their current jobs and small apartment in Santa Monica, California, to purchase acres of land not too far from where my husband and I now live. Their goal: to dive into organic farming, to live the green life and provide a home for their dog and the children they were anxious to have.

THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM: Apricot Lane Farms, Moorpark, California

“It’s so good for surrender, for (people with) control personalities,” Molly told LA TIMES reporter Bonnie McCarthey. “It’s a bit of a zen practice.”

And watching the film, THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM, you know that Molly and John Chester had to decide from the beginning that this was “game on” and no matter what nature threw at them, they would not give up. Nature was ready for the fight. And they would have to stay as calm as possible, keep working, and yes, throw in a little zen practice along the way. 

THE ROOTS OF THE DREAM

When John and Molly rescued the dog they fell in love with, he missed them,  barked all day while they were at work. Eventually, they were evicted. Then ah, an idea…the dog would do well on a farm…

“I had worked on a couple of family farms,” John said, “but they were…industrial, sort of commercial mono-crop operations, growing corn, soy for…chickens, but no understanding of soil or the importance of biodiversity or how the whole ecosystem went together. It was all about suppressing…the ecosystem and controlling it and fighting it.”

The film relates the beauty and tenacity of the Chesters’ endeavors. They wanted to honor farming of the past, farming before it was driven by the dollar and had abandoned past practices for chemicals and machinery. They called their land Apricot Lane Farms and it grew and eventually thrived–because of their vision and because of the guidance of a man, Alan York, who knew that with knowledge and patience, nature would help and not hinder.

Alan became their advisor. As John says: “His goal for us was to maximize the biological diversity of our farm, you know, through the use of plants, animals, wildlife and the restoration of wildlife habitat. So he was encouraging us to start a 10-ring circus.”

NATURE AND FARMING: Who will win?  

The Chesters became accustomed to the struggle. If the irrigation system wasn’t providing enough moisture, then dig a pond. If snails begin to kill your fruit tress, then introduce a creature who eats snails. Because nature has its balance, but you need someone like Alan York to help you know what that balance is. Coyotes were a huge problem. Enter a family dog. And when your prize female pig is ill and could die, call the vet and do some praying. (You could even create some children’s books about that particular event). 

ONE PEST AFTER ANOTHER  

When NPR’s Fresh Air heard about the farm, they sent Dave Davies to interview the Chesters. Much of the discussion was fueled by the struggle, the balance of nature. You introduce one thing to the farm, like fruit trees, and a pest almost immediately appears.

John Chester: The snails, you know, eat the leaves of our citrus trees. And that created the worst gopher problem in probably Ventura County. If someone could tell me what I could do with gophers, we would be in the black a lot sooner. Gophers in small quantities can be good. They’re tilling your soil. They’re actually helping transfer and inoculate various funguses that are important to soil health and bacteria. But …they start eating the roots. So we tried to fight the gopher problem with manpower…trapping gophers.

It wasn’t until Year 5 that we realized that there are things in the ecosystem that manage gophers, like barn owls.

And then: Well, the coyotes ate about 350 of our chickens. That required finding a family dog that could deal with the coyotes. Nature is – they’re simple opportunists, and you just need to make it slightly harder on one side so that they go the other direction. It sometimes doesn’t require as much effort as you think.

THE FUTURE OF FARMING from John Chester’s Point of View 

“If we don’t start working with our land in a more regenerative way, can the planet feed us? …just in the last 260 years, we’ve destroyed more than a third of the topsoil. We’ve deforested 46% of the trees. We’ve doubled CO2 from 260 to 400 parts per million. We are an incredible force of nature, humans. And we’ve done all of that unconsciously. And just imagine with consciousness for the infinite possibilities of collaboration with nature. Imagine what we could do with that.”

HARD WORK THAT CREATED A PARADISE 

Now my husband John and I plan to visit. After all, it’s just “up the road” from us.

As Bonnie McCarthy writes: After driving through gridlocked Los Angeles traffic, however, and arriving at the farm on a soft spring afternoon as new lambs played in an orchard laced with wildflowers and the scent of sage and citrus blossoms mingled on a gentle breeze, it was hard to imagine the harsher realities.

Apricot Lane is one of only 66 farms in California to be certified biodynamic by Demeter U.S., representing the oldest agricultural certification program in the world. Biodynamic farms are intended to establish uniquely different microclimates and native habitats, which means there is no handbook for how to do it. It’s a holistic approach in which every animal, plant, pest and poop on the farm serves a purpose — everything contributes to a self-sustaining life cycle. There are also no added hormones, synthetic pesticides or fertilizers or GMOs allowed.

Photo Credit: The Biggest Little Farm   can be seen on Netflix

Since its debut at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival, The Biggest Little Farm has charmed audiences and critics alike with its chronicle of one couple’s trial-and-error attempts to build a farm in harmony with nature.

My Inside Scoop On Caucusing in Iowa

We moved from Chicago to Des Moines, Iowa when my husband was offered an executive position in the expanding insurance industry there. We settled into an older home on a tree-lined tree, with deer feeding across our back fence and warm and welcoming neighbors. For the first caucus, I drove to the local grade school gymnasium with my neighbor, Alan. Our party lost that election. But politics is often about “where you are in your life.” A new job, settling into a new community, focussing on raising your children can blur political lines. I wouldn’t say I was at the WHO CARES point, but I wasn’t very engaged.

NOW THAT I’M A TRUE IOWAN…

For the second caucus, I owned a dark navy blue sweater with the American flag on the front. That night, I wore it. My husband & I sat in chairs in the same grade school gymnasium. There were many candidates. We paid strict attention, voted for our candidate–who subsequently did not have enough followers. What we will never forget is one older lawyer in the community sequestering his group in a side room–something we were sure was not part of the protocol. But what was happening was this ground-roots feeling of involvement. We mattered. Yes, our votes had always mattered, but this was feeling more personal.

WILL THIS BE JUST ANOTHER CAUCUS NIGHT?

For the last caucus we attended, (We have subsequently moved to California and now vote like everyone else!) we had formed strong relationships with local movers and shakers. We had attended the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines which introduces all of the Democratic Party candidates, and there were many: John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd. We met Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton that night. But we didn’t know much about this new candidate from our hometown, Chicago, Barack Obama. 

CAUCUS NIGHT SURPRISE!

Our son, Andrew, was now older and becoming more interested in politics. On the night of January 3, 2008, my husband I walked to the same gymnasium in drizzling rain–Andrew going off to be with his friends. You couldn’t find a parking space. People were flowing into the building. Because we were caucusing for Hillary Clinton, we had duties to perform, assigned to us by a close friend who was heading up her Des Moines Campaign. As the hour drew closer to start time, we lined up on either side of the entryway waving flags and signs with our candidate’s name. A few Obama followers lined the other side of that hallway.

But then everything changed. The doors opened and people began to pour in, more than we had ever seen in our years caucusing. This time it mattered more. This time the people pouring in were waving Obama signs and right in their midst was Andrew. 

RESULTS!

Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucus that freezing-rain night. Because Hillary was our first woman candidate for president, it took me a while to change my allegiance, but when I did and she gave her “glass ceiling” speech, I was there, dedicated, calling people, doing the door-knocker thing, whatever Obama’s campaign asked me to do. Days before the election itself, I drove back from Chicago where I had been visiting my mother, making my way immediately to a central point in Des Moines, where, with protective guards on the rooftops and helicopters in view, our future president gave his last address to Iowans. And because I had worked the campaign, I was upfront and able to shake his hand. (President Obama did not forget his Iowa beginnings. For the 2012 campaign, he was in Iowa in the East Village the night before the election, and thousands gathered.)

WHY THE CAUCUS PROCEDURE MATTERS

The late Tip O’Neill, who was Speaker of the House of Representatives and a Democrat, is often quoted as saying, Politics is Local. 

He’s right. When decisions by powerful men and women fail to devolve down to WHAT YOU NEED, in your life, your neighborhood, your workplace, you feel disenfranchised. Politics is not working for you. The power to vote in primaries and in elections helps keep politics local. And the Caucus process emphasizes that. There is a reason that candidates spend money and time talking to people who live in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina–the contests that start things off. 

HOWEVER, LIFE IS NEVER SIMPLE. Here are some of the Caucus NEW RULES:

The most important number to remember for the Iowa caucuses is 15 percent.

That’s the minimum level of support that the Democratic candidates must get to achieve viability at most caucus sites — so candidates who get LESS than 15 percent must realign to a different viable candidate, or join with other non-viable groups to get to 15 percent or above.

Bottom line: If you’re a candidate that can’t sniff 15 percent, you’re really not a player on Feb. 3.

To read more about the changes in Caucus rules go here.

FINAL BOTTOM LINE…  Read, listen, watch, VOTE. And thanks for reading. 

BECOME A WARRIOR FOR THE PLACE YOU LOVE

BECOME A WARRIOR FOR THE PLACE YOU LOVE

I have two daughters. I gifted each of them with a summary statement declaring WHO THEY WERE when they were only two years old. I was forecasting, observing, guessing, but I was also right on. My first daughter was a calmer, more reflective child; the second I referred to as a “warrior child,” because from the beginning she was eager to move, to get her life going in a physical way.

And in their adulthoods, they are both WARRIORS. One is a landscape architect on the east coast, working with schools who want to repurpose their buildings so they are “green”—using healthy paints and building materials. The other lives on the west coast raising my grandchildren, but also working with organizations to help disadvantaged women and children.

And me? I am part of a group of women who fight for progressive government actions, help disadvantaged families, register teens to vote, elect the right school board members and make phone calls to support honest and decent political candidates.

FLY-OVER STATE? Maybe they don’t exist. Here’s why…

A month ago, my husband finished a call with an old friend, who had proclaimed, as only this old friend could—that California is a fly-over state. The urban dictionary defines fly-over as: States in the middle of the United States that generally aren’t destinations for travelers or tourists and are generally flown over when traveling from place to place. Of course, it’s a derogative term.

We lived in Iowa for 17 years. I loved living there, though one thing I did complain about was having to transfer when flying to LA or New York City. So for Iowa, that definition has a partial meaning, but certainly not a full meaning! When I lived there, Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucuses. I studied at the University of Iowa, known for its school of creative writing. In the capital city, we had an excellent symphony, a wonderful opera and Broadway theatre events that arrived just later than the true Broadway. Plus, I met and went to lectures with amazing thinkers, writers and politicians. Small can be mighty. Small can be a warrior.

BUT WHY THE SLUR ABOUT CALIFORNIA? 

The guy doesn’t live here. I’m not sure he has ever visited. CALIFORNIA is not a fly-over state, but he obviously does not agree with the things we are doing here. Like: fighting global warming (our wind and solar farms); saving water (we need to work harder in that area); creating a diverse population—we are a diverse state, our elected officials are diverse and a great number of them work hard to help our citizens through expansive healthcare plans, public education, libraries & public transportation. Yes, our state has made mistakes (insufficient affordable housing, insufficient transportation from suburbs to cities where most of the jobs reside, high fuel prices.) Often the decisions that were made in the past (like falling in love with automobiles instead of public transportation) are hard to change when the infrastructure (and the surrounding mountains) are fighting such a change.

But in terms of educational centers, art galleries, recreational centers and the ability to experience the beauty of nature, history and culture—we are a destination state. And to continue to maintain that calling, we have become a warrior state, made up of many warriors. From the northern wine country, through the literary-art centers of San Francisco, the tech centers of Silicon Valley, the film industry and entertainment centers of LA to the Naval bases in San Diego—the state is working to stay ahead of the curve. Some battles it is winning, some I fear it might be losing, like our autumn fires. Like money having more power than the needs of the people. Like some people in Silicon Valley thinking only of making money and not of helping upcoming generations.

But it’s so easy to be out of loop of information and decision-making, to simply toss out a label. I read the LA TIMES every day and I’m not thrilled with all the decisions that are being made, but I also see our state struggling when Washington makes judgments that go against what we want. One example being fracking. But we will fight back.

WARRIORS ALL

Maybe the answer is for each of us to attempt to do ONE THING each week that increases our knowledge concerning our country, state, city, village, neighborhood. You decide. You choose. AND READ

Where we live and how we live is vital to our mental and physical health. Sometimes the smallest change (like educating ourselves on a subject we don’t fully understand) can help more people in our communities than just us.

My youngest child, my son, has lived in many diverse neighborhoods, and now in Chicago, he has become a warrior of the present, using his warm smile and open heart to do his job, reach out to others, write music, live his life. My husband works with people who have become homeless, who need and want a job. He has had many successes, understands the process, has become damn good at it.

Each of us can choose something WE CAN DO. Whether it’s writing a check or getting out there with hands eager and a smile to help—we can all be warriors—eager to move, get life going in a physical and dedicated way. No fly-overs here.

Thanks to MARK NELSON, ART: DOWN TO THE TOWN