Good Dirt: Part 2

If someone had told me ten years ago that one day I would be thankful for a steaming pile of horse shit, I probably would have thought that the person was being very mean. Yet here I am today. I am totally thankful for the steaming pile of horse shit (and goat turds and alpaca poop and worm castings etc.) that is the smelly pile of healthy, organic dirt I had delivered to my driveway.

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Good dirt is amazing. It smells good in a weird, earthy-farmy way. It’s dank, dark and beautiful. It has the appearance of moisture and health, even when it’s dry. Good dirt is complex.

Bad dirt is easy. It’s easy to understand. Every gardener knows when they have bad dirt. The ground feels hard, and it’s hard to dig into. The dirt looks ugly, often clumpy. It’s usually light, dry and cracked. Sometimes it smells funny. Weeds thrive in bad dirt but vegetables and flowers are weak and wilted and never have much success.

I know bad dirt. The native red clay in my region is perfect for building cob homes. It’s terrible for growing vegetables. The native soil can be hard to nourish or replenish. The history of the Gold Rush in California didn’t exactly leave the land in a good condition.

I live in the Sierra Foothills, just a few miles from the historic Empire Mine. According to the California State Parks District, “between 1850 until its closure in 1956, the Empire Mine produced 5.8 million ounces of gold and 367 miles (591km) of underground passages.” Basically, there is a vast network tunnels under my house and below our town that, if stretched end to end, would measure about the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles. (Or, if you are more familiar with Europen geography, the tunnels would stretch a little more than the distance from Paris, France to Frankfurt, Germany.) This fact sort of terrifies me.

Unfortunately, gold wasn’t the only thing that the Empire Mine produced. When the mine excavated all of those tunnels, sorted out the gold, and pulled out all of that dirt, it also pulled out arsenic, iron and mangenese. Subsequently, a lot of the land in the foothills is contaminated from the history of mining. Where arsenic isn’t detectable in the soil, iron and mangenese may be present and creating an environment inhospitable to gardening. For much of the people living in the Sierra, good dirt is hard to find.


We have regularly done soil tests and, while we haven’t found any detectable contaminents, our PH isn’t great and our nitrogen levels are unbelievably low. I honestly can’t believe we had so many tomatoes last year.

Good Dirt: Part 1

The dirt in my backyard is hardened clay. It’s terrible. Not only can I not grow anything in it, I can hardly stick a shovel in the ground on a wet day. I’ve been trying to reform my soil for two years and nothing has helped. I finally gave up and ordered good dirt. Good dirt is like gold.

My dirt arrived today. It came in an F450 Dump Truck. I think I could smell the dirt before I heard the truck pull up to my house.

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I ordered the amount of dirt based on the measurements of my raised beds. They told me that 2.5 cubic yards should do it. Then they told me that the delivery fee goes down the more dirt that a customer orders. 2.5 cubic yards and 4.0 cubic yards costs nearly the same amount because the delivery fee gets reduced. I went with 4.0 cubic yards. I had no idea what 4.0 cubic yards of dirt would look like. I might have over done it.

I’m used to hauling things down to my garden. My friend Eldon delivered wood chips to my next door neighbor and we shared them. I had to walk up my steep driveway and down the street to pick up the chips and wagon them back to my garden. It me took nearly 30 trips and it was exhausting.

The dirt guy delivered the pile of dirt right next to my garden. I thought that filling my raised beds, hauling dirt from the side of my driveway into the garden, was going to be easy. It turns out that dirt can be a lot heavier than wood chips. I might have over committed.

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Even though the dirt is heavy, and hauling it isn’t any fun, I keep thinking about the rewards. The dirt I ordered is really good dirt.

I ordered exactly what the dirt store recommended. I told them, “I’m just growing vegetables.” (It’s an important clarification for Nevada County. For a small town area, we have an abundance of dirt stores. And it’s not because everyone is growing vegetables.) They understood my request and I took their recommendation.

The dirt they gave me is mulchy and feathery and dark. It smells like a combination of hot days on a farm and a good, long hike. I’m sure that there will be some city folk who can’t relate, but for us country folk, the smell of good dirt is absolute heaven.

I know that this is going to be a different world for me. I know that good dirt was necessary.

Raised Beds: Part 2

My mom is here visiting from Mexico for my birthday and for Easter. She asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I didn’t have to think long or hard about it.

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“Could we go to the hardware store and pick up some lumber?” I asked.

“You want lumber for your birthday?” She looked at me.

“I want raised garden beds.” I replied.

My mom is a really good mom. She has usually gone along with my off-the-wall ideas and has generally supported me in my crazy endeavors. She didn’t say a word or judge me. She just took me to the hardware store. It wasn’t until we parked the car at the hardware store that she asked me, “Do you even know how to make raised beds?”

I honestly had no idea how to make raised beds. I had seen the ones at the local high school and thought to myself, “How hard could it be?” I knew that the hardware store had a lumber yard and I knew that they would cut boards to the demensions I specified. (I have to give a shout out to B&C Hardware in Grass Valley, CA. Their customer service is stellar. I have taken on several home projects that would not have been completed or successful without them.)

Before we left for the hardware store, I had gone out into my garden and measured my existing beds. They were about 3 feet by 10 feet and I would need 2-inch by 2-inch pegs for the corners measuring the height of the boards. When I explained everything to the guys in the lumber yard, it felt like I was speaking Greek. I was sure they wouldn’t understand me. Boards come in certain sizes. So while I needed a certain size for myself, the lumber guys needed to figure out how to charge me and which size boards they were going to sell me and how each board should be cut. After about 5 minutes of notes and conversation, the guys and I were on the same page.

My mom and I left the hardware store with several flowers and with 10-foot long boards strappped precariously to the roof of her car. It’s a miracle we all made it home safely.

I know how to use a drill and have used a drill to assemble IKEA furniture. I had never really taken on actual lumber to build something. With IKEA furniture, the holes for the screws are usually pre-drilled so the only thing you need to use the drill for is screwing in screws. It requires a simple phillips head bit.

I just figured I could put a galvanized screw into a piece of wood and screw it in. I was wrong. I actually had to go to the shed and get out my partner’s box of drill bits. I had to drill a hole into the wood before a screw could go into it.

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I picked the drill bit measuring 9/64, not because that was the right drill bit exactly, but because that was the bit that looked like it would work. I thought to myself, “What’s the worst that could happen? I drill a hole that’s too big and I have to pick a different bit and drill a new one. Big deal.” The 9/64 bit was fine.

I am not exactly skilled but I am occasionally fearless, and that occasional fearlessness has served me far better than any sensibility I possess.

After about two hours of drilling and screwing and leveling dirt, I had myself two very nice looking raised beds. I liked them so much that I went back to the hardware store the next day and bought the materials to make three more. Now I have five raised beds in my garden.

The dirt is coming tomorrow.

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Raised Beds: Part 1

I have been adamantly opposed to raised beds. I wanted to be a steward of the earth. I wanted to make the soil better. I wanted to care for my plot of land and tend to it.

I’m not sure why I got it in my head that I was supposed to put up with my terrible, clay soil, and toil year after year to try and make my soil into something it’s not.

Last year we dug holes into our planting beds. We decided to plant vegetables and we filled the holes with organic compost, treating the plants that went into the holes as though they were in pots. They didn’t produce.

I have heard every anecdote about soil amendments and I have tried every remedy. I tried adding piles of moldy leaves and working them into the soil. I tried to add ground-up pine bark. (We have plenty of that stuff up here in the foothills.) I tried to add steer manure and horse poop and chicken poop. I added compost and coffee grounds and tiny ground-up pieces of oak. I have tried everything sensible. My partner and I have worked and re-worked our soil. We have made zero progress.

For the past few weeks, I have been walking by the local continuation high school and noticing the changes they have made in their “garden.”

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The “garden” at the local school used to be a south-facing dead lawn, full of risomal crab grass and a small field of over-grown weeds. A few weeks ago, the school started digging up parts of the lawn. It looked like a misguided science project. They totally killed the lawn. It looked like shit.

Then they put in raised beds. They put in raised beds on top of their shitty, dug-up, dead lawn. The kids at the high school made these weird 7×3 boarders with wood slabs about 10 inches high. The raised beds were improvised and derelict. They looked shoddy at best.

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Then they added dirt to the beds. And vegetable starts. And suddenly they looked better than anything that I have ever seen. I was completely and utterly jealous.

Why Starbucks Can’t Fix Racism

Why did Starbucks think the #racetogether campaign was a good idea?

If we are going to understand the Starbucks attempt at creating a conversation about race relations in America, we really have to understand the Starbucks reality. On Tuesday, while waiting for my tea at 8:15am at a Starbucks in San Leandro, California, I heard a young, black woman talk about a fist fight between two girls at the high school the day before. I heard a 40-something white man in a suit and tie on his cell phone talking to his business partner about marketing. I heard a young, queer boy, dressed head to toe in green, talking to a giddy three-girl entourage about choir practice. At one point, a young black man started doing Tai Chi while he waited for his Latte. When I finally got my tea and walked back to my car, there was an older, black man in the parking lot who complemented my shapely booty and asked me if I could spare any food.

I thanked him for his compliment and I gave him an Odwalla Blueberry Bar that I had packed for the car ride but didn’t eat. He thanked me generously and promptly opened the wrapper and took a bite with a smile.


I can completely understand why the Starbucks Company feels like it has the space and the need to facilitate a forum about race and discrimination. Where we gather should be a gathering place. And where we gather as Americans should be a place to talk about America and the many things that make us American. We should be able to talk about the many terrible downfalls that have hurt us as a society of Americans- racism, sexism, ableism, genderism, beautism- you name it. Unfortunately, the local Starbucks Coffee House probably isn’t that place.

But it isn’t Starbucks’ fault.

Many of us understand racism.  Many of us have friends, loved ones, coworkers, teammates etc that cross racial divides.  I think that most people want to be inclusive and respectful of others.  But our intentions are impeded by an incredible history of racism in this country.

Why was the #racetogether campaign received so poorly?

The current American thread work is probably one of the most complicated patterns of logic for rectifying a history and storyline that negotiates our society’s ideals and morals. In other words, our present-day narrative is a contradiction, at best.

We call ourselves an equal society but we have one of the starkest divides in the world between the rich and the poor. We love art but we don’t support it. We love literature but our libraries are underfunded and many are closing. We love learning but only the privileged have access to a decent education and only a very select few can go to college. We pride ourselves on equality but our people of color and are disenfranchised in a way that rivals the history of the slave trade in America. We say that women and men should have equal opportunities but a white woman makes 77 cents to every white man’s dollar and that divide becomes greater for women of color.  We give to starving mothers overseas but our government is a constant threat to food stamps at home, a.k.a. SNAP, a program that barely keeps people alive with underfunded nourishment. We value privacy but we are under constant surveillance. We pledge free-speech but most people can’t say a word against the government without being investigated. We have people on American soil who have been detained but not charged or tried or even given a level of basic contract afforded to them by our own constitution. We are a nation of promises that has a history of contradicting those promises.

It is no wonder that the Starbucks endeavor is failing.

You can’t expect the people on the ground to speak to a subject that is continually undermined by the people in power.

The conversation about race needs to be a bigger conversation. The conversation about race can’t happen at a local Starbucks. We already “love our neighbors.” We’ve done that already. All of us can stand about in a Starbucks and wait for a coffee. We know we can all drink from the same water fountain. Big deal.  That’s basic.

We aren’t looking for that kind change. We want real change. We want REAL change.

Real change isn’t happening. The people of Ferguson can tell you that with no equivocation. And starting a conversation at a coffee shop isn’t going to create real change.

The people of America want the kind of change that will ensure that young black men aren’t shot by cops or the neighborhood watch.  We want the kind of of change where the justice system is accountable for the disproportionate number of people of color in our jails.  The people of America want the kind of change where children get the same education and tools no matter what neighborhood they come from.  We want the kind of change that brings about true equality.

Change needs to be as systemic and calculating as discrimination has been systemic and calculating. Change needs to happen nationally and globally. It needs to be cutting and drastic. It needs to pertinent and poignant and potent.

The people that need to have the conversations need to have them on a national and global level. They can’t have them at Starbucks or any other coffee shop.

On Tuesday morning, in a Starbucks parking lot, it doesn’t matter that I gave a black man a granola bar. It matters that he is displaced. It matters that he is hungry. And it matters why.

The Dear John

My partner’s brother’s “Dear John Letter” didn’t come in the form of a letter. It came in the form of finding a Facebook chat message between his wife and another man. Three months ago, when he showed us the dialogue between his wife and the other man, it was unequivocal that she was being unfaithful.

When confronted, she denied it. She said something about “just flirting” and accused her husband of being controlling, untrusting, and a snoop. My brother-in-law, unwilling to believe what he didn’t want to believe, agreed to the story his wife fed him and, not being an idiot, installed key-stroke software on the computer, a type of computer program that tracks the strokes of the keyboard and makes all communication activity readable. Around Christmas, his wife wrote a message to a stranger about a Motel 6 and the backseat of a car. It left little to the imagination and nothing to be questioned.

My brother-in-law told his wife that he wanted a divorce. It took several weeks for her to leave, but, finally, last weekend, my brother-in-law’s wife moved out. When she did, she took almost all of the furniture and left my brother-in-law to sleep on the floor.

My brother-in-law, whom we’ll call “John,” has primary custody of his two teenage daughters from a previous marriage, my nieces. John’s soon-to-be ex-wife has a young daughter of her own. Together, the five of them lived in a two-bedroom apartment. It was a fairly small and modest place in a rather expensive but run-down area with a good school district. When John’s wife left last week, she left an unimaginable mess behind her. (Both emotionally and quite literally.)


Last Sunday, our nieces called my wife and I on video-chat and showed us what their home had been turned into. It looked like they had been robbed, like a tornado had gone through the place. The 14-year-old did her best not to cry. The 13-year-old didn’t say more than a few words. I did my best not to throw up in my mouth.

My wife and I don’t usually have extra money because, for a long time, I was unemployed. Presently, we don’t have a lot of time because we both work hectic jobs. This weekend we had some time off and, for the first time in a very long time, we had a bit of extra money we could spare. We decided to go to John’s and help put things in order.

Being accustomed to frugality, we spent all of last week scrambling to find household items and furniture for free or low-cost. I asked friends to help out. I posted on a Freecycle group locally and explained the situation. I asked for stuff on swap-shop chat rooms. I accidentally crashed an Estate Sale one day early. (Don’t ever do that. They aren’t usually very nice about it.) Everyone was completely generous and kind. We ended up with more gifts than we could have imagined.

Many people donated to help out and we collected everything we could: linens, towels, dishes, clothes, a microwave, a bookshelf, pots and pans, and several small household items. We didn’t ask for particulars. Beggars can’t be choosers. Still, we were gifted high-quality stuff. And, as luck would have it, all the kitchen stuff happened to match. (Apparently no one likes red for a kitchen.) It was a frivolous blessing.

My friend Jovi recently moved in with her fiance and had several pieces of furniture to give away. She gave us a couch, a chair, a coffee table, a tall bookcase, a queen-size bed with a mattress and boxspring, and a nightstand. (She was willing to give us a dresser as well but it wouldn’t fit in the Uhaul trailer we rented.)

On Friday afternoon, we drove 172 miles to my brother-in-law’s house with a midway stop to pick up Jovi’s furniture. We took the day off and we mostly packed up everything ourselves. When we got to Jovi’s old apartment, we had help from Judah, Jovi’s old roommate, and some of the buff and polite neighbors who helped us to get the furniture into the trailer. We drove at 50 miles per hour with a towering trailer of furniture. Thankfully I know a few sailor’s knots. It was quite a trip.

Our nieces were scheduled to go to their mom’s for the weekend on Friday so we didn’t get to spend much time with them when we visited. The youngest had walked home from school so she was at the apartment when we got there. She helped unload stuff from the car.

The 14-year-old still needed to be picked up from play practice so we unpacked the car at the apartment and my wife went and picked her up. The two of them did a quick shopping trip and rented a steam cleaner so we could clean the apartment floors. Our nieces left for the weekend with their mother shortly after we got there.

I had ignorantly underestimated how hard the weekend was going to be for John. In my mind, I thought we were there to help put his life back together for him and his two girls. We brought furniture and appliances and linens. We were there to clean and to organize. We were there to help him make a clean break and to help him move on. I underestimated his broken heart.

I’m pretty sure that John saw our intrusion as something equivalent to cutting off a limb. While we cleaned and put his ex-partner’s stuff into bags, he saw a separation and a closing that he hadn’t before considered or even fathomed. He saw the reality of his immediate family falling apart. He saw his sisters cleaning up after the wife that had cheated on him and left him with a disaster. He saw the end of the wife and family he wanted for the long-term. He saw his future crumbling into reality.

My partner and I continued to clean and furnish John’s apartment even though it was clear that he didn’t know what to do next.

Maybe we did the wrong thing. Maybe, instead of bringing furniture and appliances, we should have brought several bottles of red wine and an entire collection of Leonard Cohen CDs. Or the Once soundtrack. We could have just played “Round Here” by The Counting Crows on repeat or played everything Damien Rice has ever written. Maybe we should have just sat with our brother on the dirty floor of his apartment and cried with him. Because…fuck furniture. And fuck moving on. And fuck some sort of normal reality.

When your heart breaks, there is no normal reality. When your heart breaks, you don’t need furntiure. There is only, “fuck it, my heart hurts.” And what you need is hugs and music.

But we couldn’t really do that. We couldn’t really say “fuck it.” For one thing, we had to return the trailer to our home town nearly 200 miles away. And we couldn’t really return the furniture or anything else.

There is no such thing as “fuck it” for my brother because John is a parent. He has children he cares for. He doesn’t have the luxury of time for grief. He doesn’t have time for Leonard Cohen or red wine because he has report cards and play practice and dinners and a job.

John has two amazing daughters and they need something totally different from what he needs right now. They need love and constancy. They need to be fed. The need permission slips signed. They need rides to school. They are still young and they need assurance. They need a place to do homework. They need stability and something that they can count on.

So we didn’t put on any music. We just cleaned the carpets in silence and put the new stuff in the house. We cleaned the rooms. We moved furniture. We scrubbed the floors and surfaces. We did laundry. We packed what John’s life had left but planned to take. The process was nothing short of excruciating. For all of us.

While cleaning the kitchen, I bagged two full garbage bags of tupperware. There was “stuff” tucked into ever corner of every crevice. I found plastic spoons and bottle caps in every drawer in the kitchen. There were useless dishes, unclaimed lids, obscure and random appliance parts tucked into the back of each cupboard. I found three of the exact same serving-dish in three different cupboards. It was nearly a sick metaphor: John’s wife had forgotten what she had at home and just went out and got something new. It was exhausting and disgusting.

My wife and I had only planned to stay for one night but we decided to stay for the entire weekend. It seemed a safe bet that John’s ex wasn’t going to come back to clean her mess. So we stayed until the job was done. (Thank you to the wonderful friend who looked in on our cats!) We did 16 loads of laundry and folded every piece. Including the socks. We went through the entire house and bagged up all the shit John’s wife had left.

We spent as much of the weekend packing and bagging as we did cleaning. The headless dolls in the bathtub (just in the bathtub) filled one entire garbage bag. The stuff in the corner of the bedroom filled five garbage bags. The stuff in the drawers filled at least three garbage bags. We didn’t even get to the linen closets. We packed up everything we could find and put it in bags on the porch. We nearly filled the porch top to bottom and left to right.

My hands are raw with chemical burns from scrubbing the bathroom and kitchen floors with bleach and Ajax. (I don’t usually use chemicals but this weekend needed bleach,) My face is broken out like a teenager’s from all the dust and dirt in my pores. I haven’t been this zitty since I was 14. My joints hurt from squatting and cleaning this weekend. My back is messed up. I still have a weird smell of carpet cleaner in my nose. I’ve been sneezing like one of Snow White’s dwarves for almost 48 hours.

We moved the girls’ room into the larger bedroom. We put the queen-size bed in John’s new room along with new sheets. We put the couches in the living room and bought a new rug and a throw pillow to make it look nice. We even bought candles and a mail shelf to make it look thoughtfully decorated.

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We made the place look amazing and new. We did every chore that could be done. We left everything beautiful and in tact.

Except John’s heart. John’s heart is anything but in tact. And there isn’t a damn thing we can do about that.

Except wait and show him every day how much we love him.