Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Salud, Dinero, Amor

I studied abroad in Argentina my Sophomore year of college. I knew no one going on the trip with me, however its safe to say that after 6 weeks in the freezing cold Andes Mountains together, we are now friends for life. I spoke no Spanish really. The few vocabulary words I picked up in high school were muddled in the thick Castillano accent and use of the vosotros. That didn’t stop people speaking to me though, which was a nice gesture but frankly wasted on me. Each one of us got sick at some point on the trip. I felt like I got off easy getting a cold from the 14 hour plane ride. Every time I sneezed our professor—who we respectfully nicknamed Pachamama—the earth goddess revered by the people in the Andes—would exclaim,  Salud, dinero, amor.” One word after each sneeze. Those words I understood and the recognition of these three things as important enough to remind a stuffed up, freezing cold, slightly dirty and exhausted undergrad got me thinking more about what really matters.  I suppose its fitting that I should be reminded of these words now—in med school—when all three seem to be in such short supply.

Health. Training to become a doctor has made me acutely aware of how much illness and injury there is. Do you have any idea how many things can go wrong with a human being? It’s a miracle that any of us are even here at all. No nuclear blast has pushed us into a post-apocalyptic existence. We didn’t die from the multitude of diseases that exist on this planet. And not to mention everything with every single one of our relatives went well enough that they were at least able to live long enough to reproduce. And here you are, the product of a million close calls, thousands of chance encounters, perfect circumstances, perfect timing and lots and lots of people falling in love.
But don’t celebrate just yet my little miracle. Health will not last forever. It never does. Illness will touch your life—if it hasn’t already. Sometimes we’ll be able to fix it, or at least hold off its tightening grip for a time—and other times we won’t be able to stop it. Life is life threatening my precious snowflake. Be healthy. Eat vegetables and run outside. Wear sunscreen and your seatbelt. Wash your hands. And appreciate health when you have it. And when it runs out, remember that we are carbon based life forms. We are all made of stardust and to the stars we are destined to return. Our time here on earth is just temporary. Make sure it counts.

Money.  Ugh. Money. My high school self would be quick to raise her hand and interject that money is not important. As the daughter of a doctor and an engineer—and growing up in Tiburon—denouncing the pursuit and benefits of money are easy for me to do. Money isn’t a problem until you don’t have any. And money buys more than just stuff—it buys health. You can live in a better neighborhood, eat better food, take vacations (and other soul nurturing things) when you have a hefty bank balance. Money can take your life from surviving the days to relishing them.
            Recently, I have been seeing a great number of my friends buy houses, take nice trips and perhaps the most expensive endeavor of all—having children. I feel like less of adult because I’m not able to afford any of these things. Money is powerful—each dollar is like a vote towards the things that are important to you. Money allows us to take music lessons and have nicer clothes and not worry about how many more miles we can drive until the car will go no further. Money matters—although sometimes I really wish it didn’t. You’ll have success—far beyond the average American my friend—it just can’t be right this minute. The delayed gratification will be all the sweeter. And remember when you’re the one taking home a paycheck --some hungry med students would love you to take them to lunch. 

Love. This one’s the kicker. In fact, if you don’t have the other two (money or health) love can get you pretty darn far on its own. Love makes us do crazy things. Brave things. Things that without love we would be otherwise unable to achieve. I’m not talking about running though an airport to stop someone getting on a flight (honestly doing that would probably just get you put on the FBI watch list). Love helps you get up early to go to work or to school. It helps you return the phone call to your nagging relatives that you would really rather ignore. Love is why people sit in traffic or go to movies they don’t want to see. Love is a great sacrifice and a wonderful gift and I wish it for you always. May you know how very loved you are and in turn may you show the world and everyone around you how great love is and all of the wonderful things we can do with it.
Remember that love is a choice we make every day. Not just to the people in your family or close friends but to every human being. Chose love. Chose to stand up to hate. Don’t cut people off in traffic (and if you do, then at least wave). Show patience when it is hard to do so—because I guarantee that you have been the recipient of another’s patience. Show up for each other. Let each other off the hook and give others the benefit of the doubt.
If you’ve ever felt the deep ache of heartbreak or the stabbing knife of grief, then you’ve known love to its fullest and the emptiness it leaves behind. It’s the price we pay as humans. Love will bring pain into our lives and in turn will be the only thing to fully heal the hurt.

I wish you a life full of health, wealth and love. And I hope you are reminded of how important these things are--every time you sneeze.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Peaches and Pitfalls

When it comes to peaches, I know precious little. Except that I enjoy them in every imaginable form. Sliced in a lunchbox, blended in a smoothie, even grilled on the barbeque. For the record, I also enjoy those gummy peach rings from the bulk bin at the Co-op, although I’m fairly certain they contain no semblance of an actual peach.

As big a peach lover as I am, I wasn’t sure I would be able to handle a day of peach picking. My heart raced as I turned down a dusty road off of highway 70, past a blue sign for Johl Orchards. As I park my station wagon, Kulwant greets me. “Where’s your peach bag?” is the first thing out of his mouth. “Umm,” I mutter. “Guess I left it in my other pants,” I reply. “Oh well, we’ll find you one to use,” he says, “come on, I’ll show you around.”

Kulwant Johl owns the 2000 acres of peach trees we are currently surrounded by. He has graciously agreed to let me—a graduate student at UC Davis, come to see what the peach harvest is like. Growing up in a wealthy suburb I never thought much about where the food we eat comes from. After starting at UCD, I became involved with a student run clinic in the rural community of Knight’s Landing. Many of our patients are farmworkers and I have seen the health disparities that exist in this population walk through our clinic doors every Sunday. I want to understand the work that our patients do and the challenges they face. The only way to truly know how labor-intensive farmwork is, is to do it myself. My quest has lead me here- to Kulwant and his orchard.

Kulwant and I walk between the trees and I am quickly immersed in a world unlike any I have ever experienced. The rows of trees seem endless. The branches are laden with fruit, the boughs creaking under the weight. I stumble as we walk, stepping on fallen peaches in various states of decay, disrupting a swarm of flies with each step.

In the distance I hear people talking, some in Spanish, some in what I later learn is Punjabi and some in English. I’m told that most of the people here have been picking since before dawn.

Kulwant is a kind man and as I quickly learn an extremely patient one. He agreed to let me work for a day in his orchard to find out what its like to pick peaches. When we arranged our meeting over the phone I swear I heard him mutter something about me being ‘totally crazy.’ But he plays along with my umpteen questions and diligently answers them. “How much land does he have?” “What kind of peaches are these?” “How long is the peach season?” “How much does he pay his workers?” and more importantly “how much is he planning on paying me?”

In the midst of my questioning we stop at the end of a row of trees bordering a dusty access road. “I’ll have someone bring a ladder,” he says. And indeed moments later Kulwant’s brother presents me with a ladder and my very own peach-picking bag. I feel so official. At this moment I expect a lesson on the finer points of peach picking—this being my first visit to an orchard. But I turn around to see Kulwant getting in his pick-up. I call out to him, wondering if there is any vital piece of information he neglected to tell me. “I’d prefer it if you didn’t fall off the ladder,” he said, and in a cloud of dust, he drives off.

I should mention that I did ask for the full peach picking experience—just like a regular worker hired for the season would have. No special treatment. I need to understand how hard this work is and as I soon discover—how dangerous.

I sling the peach bag over my shoulder. I’m not exactly sure how its supposed to fit, but this should work for now. Next I size up the ladder. It’s a peculiar contraption, not like the normal A-frame ones I’ve seen at the hardware store. The rungs become progressively narrower the farther up the ladder, and the other side is just a pole dug into the dirt. It doesn’t look very user friendly to me.

I pick with one hand and hold on for dear life to the ladder with the other. I’m just about to climb down when a girl—about my age walks up to my crate and starts taking peaches out and chucking them on the ground. “Hey,” I yell, shuffling down the ladder, “what are you doing, I just picked those,” I said, trying not to sound annoyed. “Did you just get here?” she asks, “because you know you’re not going to make very much money today,” she chides. I explain to her about my project and my quest to understand peach picking. She nods intently, and expresses her shock that I am doing this voluntarily. “I’m a grader,” she tells me. And goes on to explain that any peaches that are too small or too bruised can’t go into the crate—its her job to throw them out. She shows me a yellow plastic ring, “60 1/3 mm” is stamped on its edge—apparently this size or larger is the mark of an ideal peach.

“I’m Millie*,” she says extending her hand to shake mine. “Fiona,” I reply. Millie and I are fast friends. She tells me about her work in the orchard, her dreams of becoming a nurse and points out various family members working nearby. I’m grateful for the small respite and chug half my water bottle. “Picking is hard work,” Millie tells me. “No kidding,” I say, venturing up the ladder again, determine not to have more peaches thrown out. Millie runs off to check on other crates.

My head is immersed in the canopy of the tree. Its peaceful 15 feet off the ground, surrounded by golden peaches and bright green leaves. I lean on the rungs of the ladder and pluck a peach hanging next to my head. I bite into its flesh, letting the juice run down my chin. I can hear the various conversations from the people around me. A car radio plays gentle Spanish music, the two men next to me are talking about lunch and somewhere in the distance I hear someone yell, “via Obama.”

Soon I am faced with another dilemma of peach picking. I have to decide if getting the highest fruit is worth risking a head injury. My livelihood doesn’t depend on how many peaches I pick. As a student at UC Davis, I know I will go home to the pile of books and homework on my desk. I am not picking at a frenetic pace, like so many around me are.  Millie, her family, the man who moved my ladder, even Kulwant—their lives all depend on how many peaches get picked and how fast. And frankly, I’m getting in the way.

Each full crate pays $17. Kulwant and I estimate that a crate loaded to the brim with peaches probably weighs over 1,000 pounds. I’m told the record for the most peaches picked in a day is 32 crates, which equals 32,000 pounds of peaches, earning the two pickers a take home pay of $272 each. Right now I would say I’m setting a record in the opposite direction, my crate is about 1/3 full. I do a rough calculation in my head. After four hours of work I have earned approximately $6.50.

The day wears on and the late afternoon sun hangs low in the sky. I’m covered in dust and bleeding scratches from the unforgiving branches. The tiny hairs from the peach skin burn my sweaty gloveless hands. I empty the last load of peaches I can muster into the crate. Millie comes along to check my work as I lean against the ladder. “Not bad,” she says with a smile. I decide that on the high note of “not bad” I should pack it in. People are waiting to re-pick my tree, since there are still quite a large number of peaches on it. I hug Millie goodbye and she slips the yellow 60 1/3 mm grading ring onto my wrist. “To remember me by,” she says. I let the man who moved my ladder have my crate. I sling the peach bag over one shoulder and walk toward the trucks loading fruit for the cannery.

I quickly find Kulwant who greets me with a chuckle. “How was it?” he asks. “Memorable,” I reply shoving the peach bag into his hands. It was by far the hardest days work I have ever done in my life. He tells me how much respect he has for the people that do this kind of work. And after today I whole-heartedly share his sentiment. “So how much did you pick?” Kulwant wants to know. I laugh. “About half a crate,” I reply. “I doubt I could do much better,” he says. 

Kulwant lets me take a huge bag of peaches home as payment for my hard days work. Between the ladder I might have broken and how few peaches I picked, I probably owe him money.  As I climb into my car sticky and dirty, I know that this day has forever changed me.

A few days after my peach picking adventure, I find myself in the produce department of a fancy Davis grocery store. I stop in front of a huge display of neatly arranged peaches. Rolling one over in my hand, I wonder about the person who picked it. What is their life like? What are their hopes and dreams? How high up a ladder did they have to climb?  I glance down at the yellow 60 1/3 ring still around my wrist and I think of Millie. She would be so thrilled if all of the peaches I picked were as big as the ones on display here.  I learned many things while picking peaches. But among the most valuable, I count my understanding of the difficulties of harvesting peaches and a deep appreciation for those who work long hours and risk injury for $17.

* Names have been changed

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


I poured piping hot coffee into my favorite mug this morning. A slow crack started to form at the rim and descended down the handle spilling coffee all over the counter in what could only be a Cosmic Monday fuck you.

Is this what I get for prying myself out of bed to stick my face in First Aid?

I decided to take my car to get its oil changed. The sticker on my wind shield from last time has been silently judging me for months.

I pick up the car. “You need new brakes,” they tell me. “Oh and the fan belts are cracked and your front axel is about to break, so don’t take sharp turns at freeway speed if you want to live,” the car guy causally mentions, handing me the bill.

I drive home in my death trap of a car. What can I say, I like living dangerously.

I open my laptop. My desktop flashes up and the screen suddenly goes dark. I hit the escape key. Nothing. Then I mash on all of the keys to no avail. Hopefully its just out of battery and not horribly broken. I plug it in and pull out First Aid and my blue highlighter.

I start reading and highlighting and half way down the page my highlighter runs dry, squeaking out its last droplet of juice. I throw it at my bedroom wall as hard as I can.

“What the hell,” Roshelle texts me. I forgot our bedrooms share that wall.

“Sorry,” I reply “highlighter trouble.”

Remember that almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a little while-- including you. Unplug when the day isn’t really working out the way you thought it would. Or when everything seems hard and complicated. Or when 9:30am is too early for wine.

Everything breaks. The physical stuff we surround ourselves with has its limits and our bodies do too. They break—if you live long enough eventually something will go wrong. So if you're starting to feel the cracks in your sanity or the dull ache of a heavy backpack, or frayed nerves remember the wise words of Chris Pratt....

“Don’t give up. Apply constant pressure for as long as it takes. It will break before you do. Go get it.