Farming Family with Fire in Northern California

The fastest NFL player can return a punt 100 yards – end zone to end zone – in about ten seconds.  When the Northern California wild fires began raging uncontrollably throughout the wine country, it was traveling that same distance in just three.

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One of nearly 10,000 structures burned

 

The fires started at night.  Late at night and without warning.  The Santa Ana winds nearing hurricane force strength.  Flaming embers, some the size of softballs, traveled up to a mile through the night sky.  Leaping across entire roadways…turning homes, cars, and buildings into piles of ash.  A lifetime collection of memories becoming charred remains in seconds.

Two days after the fires began, we were on our way to San Francisco for a writing assignment with the World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.  WWOOF for short, is a hospitality service that organizes homestays on sustainable organic farms.  Those who work on the land are called, WWOOFERS.  And in exchange for their labor they get food, lodging and first-hand experience in organic growing methods.   Founded nearly 50 years ago, the organization is now in more than 130 countries with over 2,000 farms spread across the United States.

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Maple the Calf in the fields of Duckworth Farm

I scoured the WWOOF web site for a suitable farm, and settled on Duckworth.  An 82-acre family-run farm outside Santa Rosa, in a tiny valley a few miles south of Sebastopol.  They grow mostly blueberries, but also pears, apples, and plums.  There are horses and sheep, cows and chickens, plenty of ducks and a few tractors.  And we were excited to see it all.

Flying into San Francisco, on final approach around 10,000 feet, I noticed a faint fiery glow across the bay, just north of the city.  We picked up the rental car and started towards our B&B in Santa Rosa, about an hour north of San Francisco, a few miles away from one of many evacuation lines.  Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge I rolled up the windows to keep the smoke from filling the inside. We were still 60 miles from the flames.

In the morning, the sun, trying its best to peek through the smoke, spilled through the curtains and landed on my face. I thought I’d slept through my alarm, until I reached for my phone and realized I’d never set it.  But I had slept through a few calls.  Blinking my eyes awake, I hit “play” and listened to the first voice recording.  It was Duckworth.  All was fine at the farm.  The fires were still several miles to the north…and we were invited to come by first thing Monday.  So, we had three days.  Three days to explore.  Half a week to spend in a town that was on edge…and becoming edgier by the second.

Walking down for breakfast I took a seat against the parlor window and poured some orange juice into a thick bottomed glass.  Across from me sat Judy and Felix, both retired doctors.  They’d fled their condo and taken up residence in the room below me on the first night of the fire.  I stood to introduce myself as Judy told me her story.

“We smelled smoke.  Looked outside.  Saw flames.  And just got in the car.” She said.  Never taking her eyes off her scrambled eggs.  “We left so fast we had to leave Burt behind inside.”  Hoping Burt was more than capable of driving himself to safety, I was somewhat relieved to find out Burt was a feral cat she’d been fostering.

At the head of the table was David, who worked in a fancy financial office.  He explained  his job, but I’m four years short of a Harvard degree.  So, I just nodded as if it all made perfect sense.

For the next three days, our Breakfast Club started the day together.  Sharing food, coffee and stories.  Always trying to steer the conversation towards something more pleasant.  But we always came back to Burt, the latest containment reports, and the people we’d been meeting as we traveled through Napa, Sonoma, and other neighboring towns.

One after another, we found people making a difference.  People from all walks of life who gathered in parking lots and strip malls, forging for items their neighbors desperately needed.  Neighbors, who’s names they didn’t even know.

From the famous – Guy Fieri cooking for firefighters – to the not-so well-known; a local restauranteur serving food, water, and apparel to nearly 2,000 people.  We found the spirit of community everywhere.

Clara, a boutique clothing shop employee whose house burned to the ground, told us how her employer had moved her and her son into their home.  And Foster, an artist who escaped the flames with his son, Max.  Passing three people he didn’t know, who’d planted themselves in his front yard, digging trenches and scooping buckets of water from his neighbor’s pool to save his house.  The very next day, Max cashed his entire paycheck and bought blankets, chargers, gift cards, waters, and batteries.  Not for him and his dad, but for other evacuees.

There was an elderly man who grabbed a hose and kept the flames away from his neighbor’s house, while his home burned down behind him.  A Santa Rosa man who turned his camper into a food shelter for first responders.  Cooking meals and taking donations.  We met a group of teenagers who volunteered at a pet shelter for misplaced animals.  And two sisters who looked to be well into their 70’s, held hands and smiled, telling us they’d successfully alerted their neighbors before their condo caught flames.

When it came to the fires, six degrees of separation had been whittled to one.  But not a single person we met, listened to, or learned of, ever spoke about their loss without mentioning their gains.  How they’d each gained a newfound appreciation for being alive.  And in the process, gained new friends who were now helping them overcome unimaginable loss.

Monday morning was the last call of our Breakfast Club.  We were leaving the next day.  Firefighters were getting the upper hand on a majority of the fires, and many of the mandatory evacuations were being lifted.  Judy and Felix were heading back to their condo, where only minor smoke damage remained.  Burt, was safe, too.  A neighbor had spotted him through the window and alerted Judy an hour earlier.

David gobbled down his breakfast faster than usual.  He was in a hurry to catch a flight for a business meeting in Palm Springs.  Life was getting back to normal, it seemed.  Whatever this new normal was going to look like.

As our club dissolved, we exchanged numbers and emails, shook hands and hugged one another…promising to keep in touch.  It reminded me of my last day of High School.  All of us rushing to sign each other’s yearbook before walking out of school one last time.  Driving through the tiny town of Sebastopol, careening through its winding roads towards Duckworth Farm, I wondered if I’d hear from any of them again.

At the bottom of the valley, I turned into the farm and parked our dusty red rental alongside an old tractor. Trying to look cool in the rustic, rural setting.  The tractor did.  I looked…well, not.

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Flowers in the Kitchen Garden at Duckworth Farm

 

Lorri, who runs the farm, and her daughter, Snazzy (who was about to run us all over the farm) greeted us in the driveway with a welcome reserved for long lost cousins who finally found their way back home.  “Let’s go into the cookhouse.”  Lorri said, leading the way.  “We can talk in there.”  Making my way into the building, sidestepping a handful of border collies, I felt that familiar sense of community we’d found in Sonoma, Napa, and elsewhere.

The cookhouse, a small 20X20 rectangular building, is the nucleus of the farm.  A warm and inspiring feeling overwhelms you the moment you cross the threshold.  Windows, from top to bottom, occupy the entire back wall.  Looking out into the kitchen garden with its flowers and vegetables, the barn with its looms and cupolas, and the hills in the distance that form the valley.

Inside, in the left-hand corner, sat an antique stove with burners from a bygone era.  Big clunky knobs stared up at a set of large pots and pans on top of the warmer oven.  Dozens of cookbooks with worn out pages of recipes from pastries to pastas were stacked along the floor.  And an ice cream maker lived just off to the right, opposite a large fully stacked freezer with enough food to feed an army.  And it did.  All the time.  Dozens of glass jars, each with its contents half filled, lined up neatly along a wooden table in the middle of the room.

We remove all the cooking items from their packaging, so our students can see the ingredients, as opposed to having processed foods in cans or boxes.”  Lorri told us.  “A box of product typically has one use. Ingredients are unlimited.  So, I like them to see opportunities not products.  That, and I really dislike advertisers in my kitchen.”  She added.

The cookhouse is the place WOOFERS gather to make their meals.  Succeeding or…not. But with little harm done, either way.  “We’ve had spectacular success and horrific failures, and they both make great stories.”  Lorri said.   It’s also a place where one can feel truly safe.  Free to talk about anything and everything.  Confident their conversations will never pervade the four walls that surround them.

Lorri and her family eat off the farm the entire year.  And the bread they share with others is never sliced.  “There’s something about the ripping and tearing.  It’s visceral.  It’s…a moment.  This is how we learn to trust each other.”  Lorri told us.  The food at Duckworth is their heritage, history, tradition, religion, and identity, all rolled into one.  “If we don’t farm, harvest, prepare, cook and eat together, then we’ve lost a good part of what it means to be human in a community.  When you share a meal with strangers, everyone becomes equal.”

And there are, of course, opportunities to learn and grow in the field, as well.  While some WWOOFNG farms are more hands off, focusing only on agricultural technique, Duckworth teaches what vocational schooling leaves out; fixing engines and changing tires, welding, cooking, sewing and planting.  If you’re not collecting eggs, you’re repairing fences.  There’s sheering sheep (which I knew you could do) and milking them (which I didn’t).  At Duckworth, if you’re not getting your hands dirty, you’re not living up to your full potential.

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In the spring, there’s weeding and planting and prepping the blueberry fields.  June is plum month.  Blueberries are picked in July.  Pear season starts in August and apples are readied in September.  Winter months involve more weeding and more repairing.

Lather.  Rinse.  Repeat.

Lorri shared with us an email from a recent WWOOFER who had no experience in farm life until she spent a summer at Duckworth.  “I am now fully prepared for any oncoming zombie apocalypse.” The post read.

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Where the WWOOFERS live

The work here may be never ending.  But it is never boring, and always rewarding.  There are classes about plants and soil and taking care of animals.  But WWOOFERS here also learn about taking care of each other.  And as we wandered the property I realized we were walking the grounds of a communal boot camp for the important things in life.

At days end, we had played with – and learned about – cows, horses, goats and ducks. Snazzy taught us how to harvest, but not before we tried (unsuccessfully) to wrangle sheep.  And gave up – perhaps a little too quickly – at getting anywhere close to catching a chicken.  With nearly 100 acres there’s room for everyone.  Animals and birds, bees and blueberries, WWOOFERS, and those seeking refuge from the wild fires.  Duckworth Farm was accustomed to fighting with a fire for what they do.  This time, they had to fight a fire that threatened who they serve.

At 2:00 am, the first morning of the fire, Lorri’s phone rang.  It was a friend of hers, a local veterinarian:

“I said, “hello”, and she said, “Lorri, is your farm on fire?”  I said, “No”, and she said, “I’m on my way, trailer behind me with the horses.”   I told her I would have the barn ready and be outside waiting for her. We got her horses settled in the barn fairly quickly.”

Her family trailed behind her, bringing along their dog and two cats.  Having lost everything – including their neighbor, who died in his home – they ended up staying on the farm for two weeks, until securing a rental property in nearby Petaluma.  Also staying on the farm was a single mother from Coffee Park in Santa Rosa.  Her and her 7-year-old daughter stayed in the barn until the evacuation order was lifted for their neighborhood.

Left in the fires’ wake was more than a billion dollars in damage.  At least two dozen wineries destroyed.  200,000 acres scorched.  Close to 10,000 homes and businesses gone.  And over 40 people dead.

Too often, we conceive our world to be measured in square feet – the size of our homes.  But when we realize that homesteads are actually measured in miles, new communities are formed.  And community is the foundation of WWOOFING.   The ground of its farms is sacred.  Value is tied to it.  It breathes life and breeds lasting bonds.  On the flight home, we thought about the lessons we’d learned on the farm and in Northern California.  How the dirt beneath us can be devastated, and we can still help change the world.  They grow a lot of things on Duckworth Farm.  But crops of compassion are what they raise best of all.

Cuba – Part II

Journeying through historical sights and visiting Cuba’s LGBTQ community…here is Part II of our Cuba series.

Each new day brought with it new excitement and wonder.  We stopped in the Plaza de Revolución; the focal point of the Cuban government and one of the largest city squares in the world.  At 77,000 square feet, the Plaza has been the site of many political rallies, and it’s where Pope Francis famously held mass in 2015.  It’s two steel memorials, featuring two of the most important heroes of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuego, is one of the country’s most iconic images.

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We traveled through Fidel’s childhood neighborhood, and ate lunch in a restaurant with his son at the table behind us.  Speaking with some locals, we learned about Cuba’s churches, and how many of them are considered “sanctuary locations.”  Places where groups meet in secret to discuss the hardships of communism while plotting its demise.

We passed pockets of revolutionary groups gathering on street corners and proselytizing communism at the top of their lungs, as they waved pro-socialist literature in the air.  They’re called CDR Watchers (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), and their job is to remain vigilant and vocal, while spying on their neighbors…looking for those who oppose authoritarian rule.

By mid-week we’d talked with dozens of people on a wide range of issues.  History, art, food, weather, and the importance of smoking a good cigar.  As well as politics…an often times jailable offense should the conversation happen to spill into the wrong ears.

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And while life on an isolated Communist island is hard enough, being gay and living there presents an entirely new set of challenges.  Maintaining an LGBTQ lifestyle in Cuba isn’t an illegal offense, but it is offensive in the eyes of the government.  We witnessed it on our last night in Havana.

On the other side of Chinatown is a bar called, Cabaret Las Vegas.  We’d read about it earlier in the week, as we trudged along on the government-monitored-wifi-hotspot we’d picked up on in the park.

Las Vegas boasted the biggest drag show, in the biggest gay section of Havana. The term “big” is relative, as the “section” was nothing more than a corner with a bar, restaurant, pizza shop, and the club at the opposite end.  Big or not, it was a popular spot.  Hundreds of people gathered along the sidewalks, laughing and dancing to the muffled sounds of different disco tracks, all blending together from the four locations.  It was a festive party in the street…a mini Mardi Gras, where beads had been replaced with slices of pizza and Caipirinha’s.  Just under the surface, however, a germ of danger was waiting to be exposed.

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Standing at the door to Las Vegas was a gaunt young man in a ripped white shirt, with skinny white jeans and worn out white Converse sneakers.  He reminded me of an emaciated John Lennon walking across Abbey Road.  Although, his hair and height was considerably shorter.

“We don’t open for another hour.”  He said.  Looking at my watch it was nearly midnight.  We asked if there someplace to get a drink.  Someplace other than the crowded spots on the corner.  “Follow me.”  He said, as he left his post at the door.

Walking 10 feet in front he asked us to stay behind.  “It’s better not to draw attention.”  He said.  “I’ll go first.  You follow.  We’ll meet at a table once we get inside.” 

Our new friend entered the coffee shop, briskly brushing past a police officer who was arguing with 3 teenage girls standing on the steps of the shop.  The girls wore matching knee-high denim miniskirts, and shared a terrified look on their face.

We entered the shop thirty seconds behind the mysterious man in white, who had secured us a table.  Gesturing with both hands, he offered us a seat in the remaining two chairs.  It was all very covert.

“What’s the story with the girls outside?”  We asked.

“They’re waiting to get into the club and the police don’t like the way they’re dressed.”  He replied.

“And the police don’t want us talking to tourists.  That’s why I needed to walk ahead of you.”

Through sad brown eyes that stared right through us, he began his story.  His name was Martez; 33-years old, soft spoken, and recently released from prison, having spent 12 years of a 15-year sentence.  His crime; selling Marijuana cigarettes.  Although, his real crime, he told us, was being gay.  Martez had never left the island and his parents had never clued in on his lifestyle.

“That’s got to be difficult.”  I said.

“It was easy.  I’ve spent half my life in jail.  They never visited.  They never paid attention to me before that.  I don’t have a relationship with them.”  He said.

His words lacked any form of empathy.

We talked about the Pulse shooting in Orlando and asked what the communities response was.  “What’s Pulse?”  he asked?   An asteroid could be hurling towards us with only a few days of human life remaining.   And while the entirety of the world’s population braced for impact, Martez and his friends would be going about their normal routine.  Closed off from all things news and all things social media.   And for a moment his unplugged world seemed comfortable enough.

“Behind you.  Quick!”  Martez said, motioning with his head.  Outside the three young girls had apparently lost the argument with the police office and were being placed in the back of his car.

Finishing our drinks, we made our way to the Cabaret, as Martez resumed his spot – 10 feet ahead of us.

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By the end of the trip we’d met people who were happy, content, frustrated, scared, and downright angry.  And while the political spectrum ran from one extreme to the other, the one thing everyone had in common, was the struggle.  Whether for freedom with capitalistic independence, or communist state-run assistance, everyone was aware of the restrictions and poverty that surrounded them.

And while there’s much to envy about the wealth the rest of the world has, many Cubans we met were mindful of what else those foreign countries endure:  a populous with soaring education debt, low literacy rates, homelessness, out of control gun violence, and a health care system in disarray.  Those things are available in Cuba.  Everyone can go to college.  In fact, many Cubans have multiple degrees.  Crime is barely visible and health care is available to everyone.  And while it seems the younger generation appreciates those benefits, those we met were fully aware of the toll it is taking on them and their country.

Beauty permeates Cuba like flowers poking through a rusted metal fence.  We found it in  music, food, culture, architecture, and most of all her people.  People equipped to live a life, but forced to do so in a controlled and confined space.  Traveling is about understanding cultures and embracing the unknown.  We were fortunate to have been able to take advantage of president Obama’s easing of Cuban/American relations.  Now, with the new administration’s policy rollbacks, it’s anyone’s guess as to how those relations will be impacted.

 

Signs, Sounds, & Thoughts From My Experience At The Women’s March in Washington D.C.

One Man’s Story: Why I Marched With Women on Trump’s First Day
By: Dan Beckmann/Orlando Sentinel
25 January 2017 

Last week, rather excitedly, I posted, what I thought was a fairly innocuous tweet; “Heading to D.C. for the March!”  I wrote.  So, I was surprised to read the first response.  Not because it arrived so quickly, I have nearly 10,000 followers.  Rather, because it came from a friend with an ambiguous quip. “Last I checked you were a man…is there something you’re not telling me?”  She wrote.  Surely my well-educated friend could not be so confused to think a Y chromosome would be a disqualification for taking part in a Women’s March?  Nonetheless, there it was.  That comment…hanging like a piñata, just waiting for me to crack it with a great big stick.

So, to my friend who wrote, what I’m sure she thought was a comment in jest, I guess there are some things I haven’t thought to tell you.  Allow me to fill you in on a few of them.

For 15-years, as a cameraman, writer, and producer with NBC News, I sat on the front line of many struggles.  This was the first time I would be at the epicenter of something of this magnitude as a participant.  I knew why I was marching because I had the checked boxes all filled out in my head; women’s rights, minority issues, climate change, education.  All the big ones.  But it wasn’t until I was nestled amongst a sea of pink hats and humanity that I realized why I was really there.  By the way, there were quite a few disqualified Y chromosome people marching with me.

Women, and those with minority voices, have always played crucial roles in my success.  They are too often underrepresented, undermined, and undervalued.  So, from what some might call my “privileged” seat in society, I felt it was even more important for me to walk out my allegiance to them.

I marched because Donald Trump promised to serve all people.  And so far, his immediate circle of influence lacks the diversity to make that possible.  Having him hear our voices from his new home on his first day in office was a great start. Not everyone who needed to be heard could be there, so I was marching for them…and for all the people who’ve made a difference in my life.

I marched for my mom, who as a single parent took odd jobs teaching tennis lessons, tending bar, and fixing lawnmowers.  Always making less than the guy next to her who did the exact same job.  My mom never failed to take a college course and never got a failing grade.  Receiving her doctorate 35 years after taking her first class.

I marched for, and alongside, my friends Kent and Caanan.  Showing up with my support to protect their right to stay married.

I marched for my daughter Lauren, and my friend Tiffany.  Each survivors of sexual assault who now must watch a man who’s bragged about assaulting women lead our country for the next four years.

I marched for those so confused that they now believe in “alternative facts.”

I marched for my friends who lost all hope, and got suckered by a manipulative liar who placed a large bet on their fears and won bigly.

I marched as a reminder to those “who won” that they cannot ignore those who didn’t.  And I marched as a reminder to our representatives in Washington that they are bound by an oath to represent all those in their districts.

I marched to promote a global community of diverse members. The outcry of values and priorities aren’t solely “American issues” with isolated consequences.  Millions of others, on all 7 continents, took part in over 670 solidarity events. Our leader may say, “America First”, but we cannot claim to be “America Only”.

And I marched for that friend of mine, the Twitter commenter.  Apparently, there were some things I didn’t tell you.  I’m glad I told you about them now so we can put down our phones and get to the business of building a brighter future for us all.  And that’s something worth tweeting and re-tweeting about.

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Phixios Holdings: Just Doing Something to Bring Manufacturing Jobs Back to the U.S.

Phixios Holdings, Inc. has created an on-line campaign to help bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States.

Recognizing that maximizing profits had become more important than ensuring economic success, Phixios decided to…well, Just Do Something about it!

Not only will the on-line campaign build a manufacturing facility in the U.S., but Phixios pledges to put veterans to work in those very factories.

Check out their campaign! Make a donation. Make a difference.

http://www.bringitbacktotheus.com/index.html

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