SS: Hi, Cynthia Hawkins! I’ve been enjoying your cinema posts on TNB; given that people are discussing and deconstructing literature and music and poetry it seems only fair that film is included. I’m glad you’re picking up the slack on that front, and I’m glad you seem to have become TNB’s resident movie buff. However, for this particular piece I’m not even going to make an attempt to go highbrow or even to attempt a neat segue … because what I’d really like to discuss is ’80s action flicks. The ’80s (to me) seems to be when action movies really hit their stride. I’m talking Terminator, Aliens, Die Hard, Predator… First Blood, Tango and Cash, Commando. This was the golden age of guys like Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Do you think there’s a defining quality, or qualities, to the action films that were such an iconic part of the 1980s?

CH: Why, hello, Simon Smithson! You don’t know how happy it makes me to take up any slack there might be in the TNB movie department. Finally, I feel as if my movie-geekness is being used for good instead of evil. And by evil I mean being unbeatable at Scene It on X-Box. It’s like I finally have a true purpose now, and that purpose is to talk about ’80s action flicks with Simon Smithson. I’d say ’80s action flicks were equal parts mullet, saxophone, slip-on shoes, and kicking ass. But more importantly, I think what seems to set the ’80s action flicks apart as a golden era is that they departed from the gritty realism of the ’70s action flicks and took action movies over the top. Everything was bigger and flashier — the actors, their personalities, the explosions. The same thing was happening in music as well, if you think about it. It’s like going from Boston to Motley Crue.

SS: Well, if you were to have any kind of life purpose, you probably couldn’t get better than talking about ’80s action flicks with yours truly.

Obviously, I’m kidding.

There’s no place for the word ‘probably’ in that sentence.

Do you think advances in special effects had anything to do with the hallmarks of the era? The technical ability catching up with the film-makers’s vision? Because you’re so right – reality went straight out the window. Suddenly, the archetypal story became the one guy, killing a whole bunch of other guys, in the most explosive ways possible, and kind of enjoying himself while he did it.

CH: Your description of the jubilant one-guy killing machine immediately brings to mind Bruce Willis yelling “Yippee ki yay, mother fucker!” in Die Hard. That has to be the quintessential ’80s movie moment. It has everything except a mullet. Now that you mention it, I don’t think the bombast of the era could have been facilitated without those advancements. But it’s funny to think of them as “advancements” now. I remember at the time The Terminator was, in true James Cameron fashion, supposed to be the second-coming of movies thanks to its use of the absolute latest in special effects. Watch that now, though, and it looks a bit chintzy by today’s standards.

In fact, it’s a little hard to pinpoint ’80s action films that do stand the test of time, whether that’s due to the special effects or not. They tend to be so very ’80s even when they aren’t supposed to be. Take Young Guns, for example. A western, so I’m veering a little from the action genre here, but even Billy the Kid has a mullet in Young Guns. And I’m pretty sure there’s a Casio on the soundtrack. The ’80s flicks unabashedly embrace the tastes and trends of the era in ways I don’t necessarily notice films in the decades after doing to that same degree. It’s not too much of a distraction for me, though. I love The Terminator anyway, even if a shot does look like an egg beater getting mangled in a high-school wood-shop vice. Since this is one of your favourite eras and genres, I’m wondering if there are a few that do stand the test of time for you — or if perhaps their rebellious refusal to do so might be part of their allure?

SS: I think you’re right – there’s so much about ’80s movies as a whole – not just action flicks – that are so soaked in the unique ambience of the decade that it’s impossible to see them as anything else. In terms of special effects, some films stand the test of time… some really don’t. So much of a film’s longevity comes down to storytelling, and so much comes down to how and what special effects are being used, and how judiciously – Aliens, for example. The menace is hinted at in darkness, and done with model work as opposed to the shoddy early-era CGI that started coming in afterwards. And it’s amazing how the monsters in Aliens look so much realer than the creature in Alien 3.

I think what makes an action film stand the test of time is – and I’m loath to say this, I really am – honesty. For want of a better word.

Take Die Hard, for instance. It was a new take on a genre that was still being figured out; the storyline was one everyman up against terrible odds, he’s human, he’s damaged, he keeps getting beaten down… then compare that to Die Hard 4.0, which is slick and highly-produced and had tens of millions thrown at it in post-production. Die Hard is, by far, the better, more memorable, and more re-watchable film. Because I think they were still taking risks and trying new things and working from an idea rather than market research and exit polls, as opposed to the hollowness of Die Hard 4.0. Even though, I guess, Die Hard was one of the films that moved action films into the ’90s.

So. Schwarzenegger. Stallone. Willis. Van Damme. Russell. Norris.

Any particular favourite? And why?

CH: I noticed you left Mel Gibson off that list. Does his sharp turn into utter misogynistic, racist madness cancel him out of ’80s flick glory? Talk about things that can make a movie largely unwatchable. Is it possible to watch his Three-Stooges flip-out scenes as Riggs in Lethal Weapon without inserting that weird animal huffing followed by something like, “And I’m gonna chop you up in little pieces and put you in the garden! Rawr!” Tsk, tsk, Mel. You coulda been a contenda.

Stallone. I’d have to say Stallone is the stand-out for the variety of iconic characters he portrayed, the success of the majority of his films, and the fact that his works span that entire decade (whereas someone like Bruce is just getting started at the end of it). Stallone’s characters tend to be dark, brooding outsiders, which always appeals to me because there’s something in that darkness that implies this person is capable of wreaking serious havoc without a moment’s notice. You have faith in this person no matter the odds.

It’s an interesting list you’ve created, though, because each of them had such strong and distinct personalities driving their films. And if there’s anyone I’d cross off it’d be because their personalities just don’t click with me. Chuck Norris for example (I think I just unleashed the hate mail kraken!). Norris’ films just seemed comparatively sub-par in my estimation and his characters weren’t quite compelling enough to remedy that for me. I know I’ll meet with dissenters on that score, and I’ll probably deserve it.

I expect you to answer this question of favourites now, because if I’m going out on a limb here you’re coming with me compadre!

SS: Mel has, unfortunately, lost all cachet with me. Even home-town pride only goes so far, you know?

I have to go for Stallone as well. He gets a lot of flak for his less cerebral roles (which, let’s be fair, sums up most of them), but I would have dinner with him any day of the week.

Admittedly, he would pay.

The guy wrote Rocky when he was 30 and won an Academy Award for it. Say what you like, that’s a better script than I see myself writing at 30. He threw himself into action roles – First Blood is a good movie too; there’s a reason the word ‘Rambo’ became synonomous with the genre – but there’s a lot of darkness and thought that went into Stallone’s performance. I’ve never actually seen a Norris film – I just suspect I wouldn’t care for him, and I don’t really feel any yearning to challenge that assumption.

It’s interesting you say ’80s flick glory – because there’s a lot of glorying going on in ’80s actions flicks. I can’t help but link it to the fact the US was riding high in the ’80s – there’s even a scene in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where they talk about how people aren’t patriotic any more, and Mac says ‘Not like we were in the ’80s!’

Your thoughts on this matter, Ms. Hawkins?

CH: You do realize that there are now parts of the U.S., Texas mostly, in which we’ll only be able to travel incognito due to our Norris sentiments. And I live in Texas. There’s such a fervour over Norris of late, and I haven’t figured out if it’s a joke (like nominating Carrie for prom queen) or if it’s genuine admiration for the guy. I think I’ll quietly tiptoe away from this one and move along…

Oh, I absolutely agree that the bigness of those movies is reflective of the bigness of America’s collective sense of self at the time. I’ve always suspected that the best way to get a handle on any era is through its pop-culture. That said, this is the U.S.A. of the ‘80s based on Rocky IV: “If all we have is a donkey cart to train on, we can still kick your ass. And we will do it to synthesizers. Now, step back and take in the awesomeness of my shimmery satin stars-and-stripes shorts.”

But this reminds me that as much as we love them, these films aren’t entirely representative. They’re largely white, and they’re largely male-centric. Your thoughts on this, Mr. Smithson? (It’s like I just dropped a grenade at your feet and ran away!)

…Okay, I’m starting to feel bad for sticking you with analyzing 80’s flicks for NOT ONLY issues of race but gender as well. I mean, sweet jeebus, how much time do you have? If you’d rather, I was also going to ask you about what you thought of Stallone’s comment regarding the “death” of the genre as it was envisioned in the 80’s. If you’d rather go that route, here’s the official set-up…

Ahem…

So, Stallone told the Los Angeles Times recently that he felt Tim Burton’s Batman marked the beginning of the end for the 80’s-style action hero such as himself. Suddenly, someone more ordinary, less ripped, someone like Michael Keaton, could be the hero. He also felt that the “visuals took over,” becoming more important than the individual. Do you think the 80’s brand of action movie and action hero is truly dead? And, if so, would you agree with Stallone’s assessment of why? I’ll remind you he’s still really big and he’s buying you dinner.

SS: But wasn’t that what America was all about in the ’80s? White guys kicking ass all over the world? Even if they had a decidedly non-American accent. Huh. Can I even say this? Wesley Snipes didn’t become an action hero until Passenger 57, in ’92. Jackie Chan didn’t break for Western audiences until Rumble in the Bronx, which was what, ’95? Bruce Lee was a one-off in Hollywood, so it was up to Chan to open the market for guys like Jet Li and Stephen Chow. Carl Weathers and Bill Duke were probably the most well-known mainstream non-white action stars, and Sigourney Weaver was the sole representative for female heroes (although she beat the other guys to the punch – Alien was ’79). I don’t know, can you think of many other non-white, non-male action stars with the same level of notoriety?

As for the Batman idea… that’s really interesting. I remember reading that there was an outcry surrounding Burton’s decision to go with casting Keaton; people thought Keaton, known up until then primarily for comedic roles, couldn’t pull it off. I would say Stallone was right on the money there – although I think visuals probably would have been just as over-the-top as they are now, if they’d just had the technology at the time to do them. There is an element of escalation – action movies have to keep upping the ante, it seems, which could be one of the reasons they’re becoming so blase and staid.

I think now we’re seeing a combination of 80s and 90s heroes. Bond and Bourne and Batman are just as buff as their 80s forebears ever were – it’s become mandatory to have an shot of someone’s amazingly-ripped body as they train or fight; every film since Fight Club has sought to include it (Pitt’s toplessly muscular fight scenes set the gold standard). But they also have to be psychologically fascinating – the best of both worlds?

And of course, that brings us to The Expendables

CH: I think you’ve covered it well! If there is, by chance, any non-white or non-male kick-ass action hero we’ve left off, I think the fact we’ve forgotten them says it all about their unfortunate status in the ‘80s. I distinctly remember watching Burton’s Batman and feeling really anxious at one point when it seemed Batman was utterly defeated. He’d just gotten the crap beat out of him. His Batmobile was trashed. And I thought, “What is this? Stallone would have had this wrapped up twenty minutes ago.” Of course, he manages, just barely, to get out of trouble, but Burton’s vision of the action hero introduced a level of vulnerability and ordinariness you just didn’t see often in the ’80s. I think that’s the direction the action hero has continued to go coupled with that attention to visuals Stallone laments.

So … The Expendables. Have you seen it? Is it on where you are? I’m going this weekend, so I’ll report back on it afterward. I was going to avoid it, actually, but after our chat I’m feeling a little nostalgic for that bunch. Except maybe Dolph Lundgren. I’m not feeling nostalgic for Dolph. At all. Until then… I really want to know two things. What is it about this era of action movies that appeals to you, and if I asked you to queue up one of these films to watch this evening which one would it be?

SS: Are you kidding? Lundgren is one of the unmoveable Scandinavian pillars of the action genre. He’s blonde death incarnate. At least, he’s blonde death incarnate up until the last five minutes of any film, when he usually gets iced by the hero. Did you know he has a master’s degree in Chemistry, speaks seven languages, and competed in the Olympics? Which makes two ex-Olympians in The Expendables, along with Statham (and yes, it will shortly be on where I am, and yes, I am going to see it).

I think the simplicity of the concept is what appeals to me. There’s no pretense in ’80s action flicks – the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and an explosion will, most times, take care of any problems admirably. Most Hollywood movies – most movies, really – despite how high their aspirations may be, don’t really have all that much higher-level functioning to them as a matter of course. Which is OK, because, honestly, how much philosophy and understanding of the human condition can you fit into two hours of running time? Sometimes it’s nice to see something that dispenses with any kind of effort to be anything but gun porn.

Any one of those films? Damn. You know, I might go with the original Terminator. It’s been a very long time since I saw that film. Did you know that in every James Cameron film that Michael Biehn stars in, Biehn gets bitten in the hand?

I wish Snipes and Van Damme could have made it into The Expendables. That would have been perfect.

So how about you? Any single ’80s action movie?

CH: I do appreciate Lundgren for one thing: uttering the words “I must break you.”

I have to say that Die Hard, First Blood, and the first Terminator are all movies I watch more than the normal person should. So I’m going to follow your lead and pick something I haven’t seen in a very long time. Predator. For one thing, it offers one of my other favourite movie quotes with Arnold’s “you one ugly mudda fucka.” For another, it has Carl Weathers who survives just slightly longer than most non-white people do in ’80s action movies. And then there’s the awesome heat vision special effects, the jungle razing explosions, and an alien enemy who leaves its prey hanging like strips of beef jerky in the trees. What’s not to love?

SS: Nothing.

Of course, it took more than Robbi’s job offers to bring Johanna and me out here to the marijuana farm. Should I write about this part in any sort of detail? Will I be defying my own vow to keep such things relegated to the realm of “backdrop?” Should I discuss how, in 2006, I found myself living in my parents’ house in suburban Chicago for the first time since I was seventeen, this time with Johanna in tow, due to my mom’s diagnosis? How, after having lived in Alaska, Italy, Key West, New Mexico, Arizona, and a failed attempt in Vermont, that reentering Buffalo Grove, Illinois gave me the alcoholic shakes, the soothing drink to quell them being the swallowed desire to flee to some distant mountaintop, some beach bungalow, some bomb shelter in which I could grow, with impunity, a wizard’s beard beneath which to hide? Oh shit, oh shit. This is one of those stories, isn’t it? No. No. It’s just the establishment of context, right? I can’t say “backdrop,” and not give the stage-curtain a color, right? Right?

Also: I did not change the names of the places I lived. Those are accurate, as is the Buffalo Grove admission, which I’m still a little leery about. I’ve tried for most of my life to shuck that place, for better or for worse. But, hell, I played enough Four Square and Running Bases, and chased enough fieldmice, and ate enough bad food in that town that I shouldn’t fear claiming a small ownership.

Of course, this descent (for Johanna) and re-descent (for me) into B.G. crept into us like nausea with a remarkable intensity, and then, for the most part, kept quiet. We were Haleakalā, Mount Edgecumbe, Chato Volcano, and Paulet Island: dormant. (Keeping this list short was a labor—the desire to include Mount Bachelor, Mount Elephant, and Pelican Butte, was fierce, but I didn’t necessarily want you picturing bachelors, elephants, or pelicans, but, well, it seems I’ve now fucked this up. Oh well. As the gay rabbi who bar mitzvah’d me used to say to his congregation in times of Judaic woe, …and let us all say: Son of a bitch).

At the crest of my mother’s therapy, when she was (as she was so often then) sleeping, my father, never one for overt emotion, called me into his bathroom—the chamber in which he sat for hours staunching the… No. I’m gonna spare you that. I will tell you though that it was in that bathroom, after a shower, that I discovered on the blue padded laundry hamper, centrally-located in my father’s stack of subscribed-to Playboy magazines, the December 1984 issue that featured Karen Velez, who was single-handedly responsible for my later shunning of breast implants, and who forever changed the way I used and reacted to the word pendulous.

Walking quickly, I passed the walls lined with his Howdy Doody and Hopalong Cassidy memorabilia, what my mother would call, “his childhood cemetery.” He was standing next to the toilet, hair less curly than it used to be, new totem pole tattoo clinging bright to his left shoulder, staring into the blue wastebasket, shaking his head. Few sights are more pathetic than one’s father, nervous beyond reason, standing next to a toilet. Karen Velez, and the flightiness by which I defined myself up to that point, were long gone, hopefully commingling in the bottom of the same mid-Eighties dumpster. I had to slow down. I had to look. Like at a car accident on the highway. Inside, I saw a mound of her brown hair, enough it seemed to cover the floor of a barber shop, one that over-compensated by including a (misleading) superlative in its title: Supercuts. Fantastic Sam’s. Like I’m one to talk about over-compensation. I can’t seem to keep my damn mouth shut about this, breaking promises, contracts. I might as well commit here, include some remembered dialogue, milk the cow.

“Why do you want to show me this?” I asked him, my throat reacting as it would have to a sliver of black peppercorn.

He snorted softly. He looked confused.

“I think you should share in this,” he said.

****

Many times, Johanna and I delved into understandable selfishness, lamenting our loss of sanctuary, our rhythms, this wet cloak clinging to our skins, stirring our hearts to a perpetual flutter. Let me rephrase: we were pissed off. Distraught, sure, but pissed. We were solitude fetishists. A quiet evening at home, just the two of us, was our autoerotic asphyxiation, a bad late night action movie (see: Tier One: anything by Lorenzo Lamas, Brian Bosworth, or Dolph Lundgren (save for “Rocky IV”); Tier Two: anything by Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, or Eric Roberts; Tier Three: anything by Schwarzenegger, 1970-1988; Tier Four: anything by Schwarzenegger, 1989-2003 (with the exception of the—heavy on the quotation marks—“comedies,” “Junior,” for example); Tier Five: “Rocky IV”), our silk stocking. For you aficionados: This list is heavily abridged. And the logician in me wants to qualify: Order of tiers inversely proportional to alcoholic drinks consumed. The realist in me wants to counter: Order of tiers, interchangeable. These were films that Johanna initially dismissed as “a load of shit,” but by month two, she was just as addicted as I.

Many times we would go for midnight walks to the neighborhood park—the site of my first tornado slide, little league baseball games, after-school fights, the place where I lost my third tooth, falling from the tire swing, the place where I tried, and succeeded at, eating a woodchip—and sit on the swing-set, sometimes silent, sometimes raging with the urge to flee. Part of me wants to say something about the stars here—a specific constellation even (Andromeda, my favorite—it has something to do with the sea monster)—but I’m gonna pull back.

We would complain about the way the city lights dampened the night sky, about the ever-listening ears of the neighbors, likely descendants of the Original Yenta. We would talk about how my mother would surely heal, overusing the words strong and pull through, and about the many options that lie ahead for us, which looked then, when I closed my eyes, like an endless chain of yellow center highway lines, the lane separators, some even-more-scary version of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” trailer. On that swing-set, in that park, we approached each option with equal disinterest. Then, we would go back to the house, undress in my old bedroom, and listen to my parents cough half the night. Am I really going to write about this shit in any sort of detail? Hell, no.

****

About eight months later, when it looked as if all may turn out well with my mom, my wife and I, lost and insane with the thirst for solitude and a measure of cleansing, received Robbi’s phone call and decided to take these seasonal jobs. Then, we had no idea about the Residents’ Camp and communal meals, and tent livin’, and strange showers in which we felt compelled to wear our rubber shoes for fear of contracting all things fungal… No, at the time, after a stint in Midwestern realism and all of its spiritual bratwurst, California seemed to us the physical manifestation of a cosmic high-colonic. And Robbi had worked for Lady Wanda before, so we were welcomed with hefty open arms, without much interrogation.

****

Johanna and I often talk of Chicago during our pre-dinner walks, but we don’t tonight. We’re too hungry. For the season, Lady Wanda has set up a white canvas carnival tent on the east side of her substantial house, under which three meals a day are served. From the fields, Johanna looks longingly toward the tent’s three white peaks as if they were as snow-covered and as insurmountable at the Himalayas. Sometimes, when we’re craving meat, they are. After a day of massage, when she’s hungry, Johanna can get irrationally poetic about food.

“I hope they shoe-horn some lamb into that vegetable mass tonight,” she growls.

Meals on Weckman Farm are typically vegetarian, but, I must admit, wonderfully prepared. Alex, Emily, and Antonio are the three full-time chefs under Lady Wanda’s employ, and just so you don’t invest too much in them, they will not be major players in this tale. That doesn’t mean I can’t try to describe them, though. And later on, I may even tell a story or two about them. It depends on how I’m feeling, benevolent or smart-ass; both moods likely disingenuous and forced for the sake of the narrative. (Insert your favorite proper noun that includes the word, liar, here. I’ll choose, “Fellini: I’m a Born Liar”). But for now, consider Alex and Emily pseudo-hippie wallpaper, and Antonio a bookshelf-bound and balloon-cheeked bust of Buddha. Sorry for all the B-word there. I get lost sometimes…

Alex and Emily, a married couple in their upper-twenties, are culinary school graduates who cut their teeth at a pair of well-known Napa Valley restaurants (he as a sous chef, she as a pastry chef), before finding their way to Weckman Farm. They both wear cat’s-eye glasses and beads in their hair and have a flair for breakfasts. This morning we had sea-palm (a local seaweed) quiche with caramelized onion and feta cheese. I tried to like it, and eventually did. Johanna, not the world’s biggest fan of ocean-born green stuff, bitched. She decorated the edges of her plate with these lovely little blobs of rejected magnesium.

Antonio, a fifty-year old man from Veracruz, Mexico with a robust fifty-year-old paunch, is theirsous chef, trained in his mother’s restaurant, perfecting such dishes as last night’s dinner ofenchiladas suizas stuffed with roasted mushroom and topped with a tomatillo cream sauce. Though meatless, we both adored it, and, if I remember correctly, Johanna may have clapped once.

Their kitchen is housed in a large blue-roofed shed in Lady Wanda’s backyard and includes four ranges, an indoor grill, a chest freezer, a commercial mixer and a walk-in refrigerator. Johanna speculates that not a single piece of this equipment has ever had the luxury of housing so much as a sliver of lamb.

“I think they fear real protein,” she whines, enumerating the oft-repeated list of the exotic meats she enjoyed as a girl growing up in Northern Sweden. As always, as if for emphasis, or to subvert the cute and the Christmas-y, she ends her rant with, “…reindeer!” (Not true, but it was a similar beast, and I couldn’t resist the holiday reference).

I reach for her hand again as we watch Alex, Emily, and Antonio carry plastic-wrapped aluminum food bins from the rear of the house to the picnic benches under the tent. We can hear Antonio grumbling to his chefs de cuisine, “If you two don’t stop French-kissing when you’re supposed to be shucking corn, we’re going to be here all night.” He rockets a string of what must be the most marvelously obscene Spanish I’ve ever heard, yanking the plastic wrap from the food. This, it must be admitted, happened nightly, though I confess I was occasionally turned-on by their public displays of affection. I’m a voyeur. Johanna’s fully aware of this. Sue me.

Johanna’s hand, which hasn’t lost any of its oil from a day of rubbing people, squeezes mine. The aromas of something entirely vegetal float from the tent, infiltrate the breeze, and strike my wife with a leafy disappointment. She sighs the sigh of a woman who is having something green (again!) for dinner; who is living outside for a season in a Coleman Cimarron tent—a Coleman Cimarron amid sixty others in the Residents’ Camp. This is not necessarily what we had in mind when chanting the word “sanctuary!” on that swing-set back in Chicago.

The Residents’ Camp sits like a shantytown village on the opposite end of the property from Lady Wanda’s house. Unless the weather turns to rain, or becomes the California version of cold, it’s uncommon to see a male crewmember wearing a shirt in the Residents’ Camp. The few women who make up Lady Wanda’s crew have been known to forgo the occasional shirt as well. Johanna and I are probably the Camp’s most clothed crewmembers, though we do feast our eyes on the only meat—some more well-done than others—served here at Weckman.

For a shantytown, amenities abound. Or, if not amenities, an amenity. Lady Wanda has constructed a pair of shower sheds in the Camp, replete with hot water. They are a pot farm version of clean, which is to say, dirty, and, as I said, Johanna and I don our rubber sandals with enthusiasm. When we first arrived at Weckman Farm, one shed was for the boys, the other for the girls. As the season progressed, things became a bit more co-ed. The curtains are mercifully (again: depending on who you ask) opaque. I’m thinking of Charlie the Mechanic here.

“The world’s goin’ to shit,” Lady Wanda says to the crew after the workday, “but I run my generator on vegetable oil. Enjoy your showers!”

Lady Wanda is a self-proclaimed permaculturalist. I’m not sure that word exists east of the Continental Divide. Oh: Well. Pardon my presumptuousness—I just found out that the permaculture movement began in the 1970s in Australia. I mean, like, literally ten seconds ago. The word, in print, tends to keep company with the word synergy, and who am I to deprive it of its life partner? Anyhow: praise Wikipedia.

As such a permaculturist, she has, in Weckman Farm, attempted to create a self-sufficient mini-society that avoids dependence on the many amenities of industry. She sings the financial praises of her role as ecologically- inclined businesswoman. Her vegetable oil powered generator costs her forty cents per gallon.

For a first-time Picker, this self-sufficiency can carry with it the side-effects of claustrophobia and stench. Every crewmember who arrives by car is instructed to park in an open grassy lot on a spur road off the main gravel drag that leads to Weckman Farm. We have access to our vehicles only in cases of emergency. Often, I picture our reddish Kia Spectra, lying dormant, collecting the spoiled smells of our abandoned road snacks. I think we may have ditched a half-turkey salad sandwich beneath the front passenger seat, due to Johanna’s distaste for the celery brunoise suspended in it. At night, in the tent, I would often think of this sandwich, and bugs, and become anxious and unable to sleep. Look, I’m a suburban Chicago Jew at base. What can I tell you?

Lady Wanda collects lists of her crew’s favorite products. She then sends a team of faceless shoppers into the nearest small town (not very near) to gather these items. She labels the resulting paper bags with our names in black magic marker, so we can have access to our Vidal Sassoons, our AquaFreshes, and our SpeedSticks without ever having to leave the premises. If we must send out mail, Lady Wanda collects it and has another faceless messenger truck it to the local (not very local) post office every three days. She even pays our postage. This way, a Picker has very little to do but work; this contained, sustainable world a constant fluctuation between field, food tent, and the Residents’ Camp.

The Residents’ Camp faces Lady Wanda’s mansion as if at the opposing heads of a medieval table, we workers constantly facing the nighttime queenly stare of her lit upstairs windows—a royal and intimidating job interview. The atmosphere in the Camp is surprisingly courteous, many of the workers putting away their acoustic guitars, jimbe drums, and laptop stereos early into the night. After all, many of us are working longer hours than an investment banker.

Johanna and I walk from the pungent crops to the warm mouth of the food tent. The sun has nearly dipped out of sight, only its red scalp hanging on the horizon above the rows. The air is heavy and without definitive season. It can be January or June. It can only be California.