Thursday, May 26, 2011


Last week, 60 Minutes aired a segment on child farm labor. Yes, it still exists in America and it's still legal. Kids do it to help their families. They're strong, these kids, resilient. They work hard and make the best of those long, hot days. But ask any of them, as the 60 Minutes reporter did, and they'll tell you they don't want to do it forever. They plan to graduate high school, go to college, make a better life for themselves and their children. When I was a kid, I worked as a farm laborer, too. No one forced me and I did not do it to help my family. I did it because many of my classmates were doing it, and because my parents had done it as children, and their parents before them.  I did it for cash, for a pair of Levis and a Nishiki 12 speed bicycle. It was tedious, dirty work, but like today's farm worker kids, we made the best of it, picking to the rhythm of transistor radios tuned to the same, top 40 station. Backaches and sunburns aside, I have fond memories of those berry picking days.

At sixteen, I left the fields for a coveted cannery job, which required a union membership but paid way better than picking or fast food. The entry-level women's job at Del Monte was known as, "the belt." It's where everyone started. You stood on a raised platform watching an endless river of green beans as they flowed by on a conveyor. The task was simple: pick out the rotten ones, stems, clods and rocks. We wore fetching hair nets. After a few minutes on the job, staring down at the beans, I began to feel queazy. It was as though I was moving and the conveyor stood still. I bolted to the restroom, without permission from my supervisor, to puke. Upon my return, still pale and shaky, the lack of appreciation shown me for having not spewed on the product was an affront to my teenage sensibilities. They moved me to the steaming, sweltering cook room, the end of the line. Standing on another, higher platform, a line of cans, single file, ran up a skinny conveyor and onto a stainless steel table. As the warm tins gathered, I pushed them onto a pallet in a single stroke using a heavy, two-handled, sickle-shaped squeegie thingy. When one level on the pallet was full, I'd lay a divider on top, then push some more.  I pushed, and pushed, and pushed, left to right, left to right, left to right. All. Day. Long. The best thing I can say about the cook room is that blanched green beans don't have much smell, and the faint aroma they emit when simmering is pleasant enough. I can't say the same for beets, which were cooking and coming off another line twenty feet away. Throughout that late, hot summer, feet aching on that metal scaffold, sweat pouring over eyebrows and drizzling down temples, I heaved green beans, inhaling the sickly sweet stench of boiling beets with every breath. I hate beets.

I come from a long agrarian line, proud of my farm-worker heritage. I appreciate what farmers and field hands do because I've done it. It's honorable work. But like those boys in the 60 minutes story, I aspired to a different life, one that did not involve blisters or stained hands, neck and back complaining, head and shoulders baked under a scorching sun, nor do I miss factory work, repeating the same, mindless task, over and over and over. This is why I am not so enamored with this coffee farm hobby we've taken up as my city-boy husband, for whom the romance and novelty are still fresh. He thinks it's really cool to be picking our own coffee. I think it's a chore and would rather just buy some at the farmers' market. Rustling through rain-soaked brush to find the ripe red cherry, stooping to get the low fruit, stretching on tip-toes to reach the high ones, sweeping spider webs from between the branches; this is his dream, not mine. There are so many better things to pick: the strings on my ukulele, the right word for a perfect sentence, a fresh, clean aloha shirt from the closet, a beer from the Gordon Biersch collection I bought this morning at Foodland, my nose, my dog's nose.

The Hilo Coffee Mill called this afternoon to say we have 20 pounds of green coffee dried, hulled and ready to roast. OK, I guess that's kinda cool.

Monday, May 09, 2011

A hui hou, Hoppsy

She was the world's most brilliant, brave, mischievous, and beautiful border collie in the history of the universe. Hopps made us smile every day of her life.

She came to us from friends who adopted her from the Denver Dumb Friends League. She had been abused as a pup and was shy then, afraid of anything with a long handle, scared of belts and loud noises. Our friends loved her, but with a fledgling business and a baby on the way, they had little time for. We fell for her instantly that weekend they came to visit, and when they asked if we'd be willing to take her, we said, in unison and without hesitation, "Sure!"

Hopps transformed from city pooch to country girl and quickly became the happiest dog in the world.

Now, free from old age and disease, she can shag tennis balls all day long.  "Hello, Hoppsy," my father says, as though he's been expecting her. He sits on the tailgate of his long-bed '65 Chevy, Crawford, our English shepherd, content at his side. Lucy, the calico, purrs on his lap. Hopps is crouched and ready, her gaze trained upon the ball, bright yellow and fresh from the can, snapped tight into the cup of the Chuck-It in Dad's hand. Dewy grass shimmers in sunlight. He pulls back. She's off! He flings it, and all is right with the afterworld.

   "What's this sock doing in the middle of the living room floor?" Ron might have asked on any given day over the past 11 eleven years.
    "I don't know," I'd say. "You'll have to ask Hoppsy."

In heaven, there are infinite socks to steal.

In heaven, you can eat all the cat food you want and not barf. You can sniff all the cat's butts and goose them with your nose whenever you get the urge and none will ever scratch your nose. You can go hiking, chase prairie dogs, leap over logs and wade through creeks -- shallow streams just right for a dog who can't swim -- running clear and cold to quench your thirst and cool your paws. In heaven, you can roll on cow pies or fish carcasses and nobody makes you take a bath. Ever.

There are no thunder storms in heaven.

You can eat all the licorice and Jelly Bellies you want and not barf.

You'll always be with us, Hoppsy. You'll always be our girl.