Radical Mamas

A VARIETY PACK OF ALTERNA-MOMS bounced onto the stage. Young and not so young, black and white, tie-dyed and purple-haired, they lined up in two rows and began their chant:

Our babies like to walk,
Our babies like to crawl,
Our babies like to breastfeed,
and that’s not all!

These were the Hip Mama Radical Cheerleaders performing in faux drill-team fashion. Their pom-poms? Clenched fists.

Our babies go to protests,
Our babies change the world,
Our babies rewrite what it is
to be a boy or a girl.

One of the cheerleader moms, a butch dyke with a buzzcut and pendulous, braless breasts, seemed to float off the ground on spirit alone. On the word “girl,” she and the squad spun around and mimed yanking down their pants, mooning the world. Welcome to the 2003 Mama Gathering, an event to celebrate the radical, freethinking, politically active mommy. Moms from as far away as Saskatchewan and Upland descended on the LAX Radisson for a weekend of workshops, potluck dinners and readings.

Tired of feeling like the freaks in the Mommy and Me groups, Dorie Lanni, a local mom who took up the gauntlet thrown down by the last (and first) Mama Gathering 2001 in Portland, Oregon, and a group of like-minded volunteer mamas, sought to create a forum for mothers who, as Lanni put it, “chucked the crap parenting books and found or carved out alternatives when they realized that the advice coming from the most available sources sucks, and their families didn’t look like that anyway.”

With sessions that included anti-racist parenting, creative activism, alternative family health, sustainable living and erotic writing, the vibe was one of simmering rage mixed with bitter resentment toward all things corporate and/or institutional. Caucasian moms shared their anguish over their “white-skin privilege” and sought out ways to empower their own racially mixed children. Humanistic educators espoused the virtues of a child-led curriculum. Anarchist moms expressed frustration with bringing their children to un-family-friendly political protests and vowed to create actions with child care. A brainstorming session in “creative activism” yielded ideas such as silk-screening political logos for babies’ onesies, making politically correct coloring books for kids, and using corporations’ own postage-paid envelopes to mail bricks back to the companies. Toward the end of the session, Inga Muscio, author of Cunt, shouted out, “Chicken!” Huh? We all looked to her for clarity. “Rotting chicken really stinks. Go to Wal-Mart and hide little pieces of chicken all over the store.”

Chicken was definitely nowhere to be found at the Mama Gathering — it was a vegan event. Radisson hotel policy prohibits serving brought-in lunches, so everyone sneaked up to the fifth floor at noon for an under-the-radar bag lunch. We ate our hummus-veggie sandwiches and drank our Soy-Ums on the sly, slipping handfuls of Pirate’s Booty to our kids. Everywhere women were breastfeeding and babies slept in slings. In the pool, mamas swirled their naked, uncircumcised tots around in the water, cooing to them over their tongue studs.

Satisfied that we had not only eaten a healthy lunch but had also fucked with corporate policy, we returned to the conference rooms for one last session. In “Feminism and Popular Media,” Kathe Kollwitz of the Guerrilla Girls; Lisa Jervis, editor of Bitch magazine; and Kristin Hersh, lead singer of Throwing Muses and mama of five, gave tips on how to question and subvert the status quo in art and advertising. Hersh shared a story in which she was asked to do a photo shoot for Spin magazine wearing nothing but a pair of rhinestone panties. She walked out of the shoot, thus ending her association with Warner Records.

The event wound up with a party at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Culver City, where Ariel Gore read from her new book. We were entertained by our own children, who were given free access to the stage and musical instruments to jam with. One raven-haired 5-year-old boy strapped on a junior-sized electric guitar and plugged into a tiny amp, letting loose with a searing, atonal guitar solo. All the mamas swooned. Vending tables were set up to sell a variety of wares from menstrual sponges to organic baby clothes and doula, or birth support, services. Ayun Halliday was there selling copies of her zine, The East Village Inky, with her daughter Inky at her side. We shopped, we talked, we swapped Web addresses, we dined on black beans and rice. And then we watched the Radical Cheerleaders bring it on home:

Our babies are our futures,
and our future’s looking brighter,
’Cause each baby makes a woman a Mama and a fighter!

—Erika Schickel

Field of Dreams

A few miles west of Santa Paula, in a sea of citrus groves, Paul Carpenter, of Coastal Organics, is, as the old joke goes, out standing in his fields. Coastal Organics is not really a farm as we city folk conceive of one: There’s no barn attached, or barnyard animals, no farmhouse or farm wife cooking up a lavish noontime meal for the farmer and his hands. Instead, Carpenter and his wife, Maryann, live 20 miles away in Oxnard; she handles the bookkeeping from home and takes the crops to farmers markets while he farms. His son Mark does some of both — farming and marketing. Their growing fields consist of 13 acres rented from a citrus ranch owned by the same family since 1903. “People hang onto farmland around here,” says Carpenter, and then he shrugs. “I couldn’t afford to buy it, anyway.”

A tanned, good-looking, sturdily built man, Carpenter has been in agriculture his entire adult life. Until 10 years ago, he worked for large-scale commercial operations, usually as a farm manager. He’s been farming organically since 1988, his first attempts being in partnership with a large commercial grower on a 450-acre farm. “But the competition was very heavy,” he trails off, then adds, “Dole . . . ,” downright dolefully. Now, on his own with these 13 acres, he’s found his niche. “If you finance yourself, this is really the only way to go — growing varietals and direct-marketing them.”

We look south over the citrus-paved valley to the far blue hills. Around us, lemon trees go unpicked; their fruit, too small to sell, has begun to drop. Carpenter is clearly glad the lemons are not his concern. He has worries enough from his tomato crop, which normally starts ripening around June 10, but here it is almost July, and only a few small Sun Golds are ripe, and some Early Girls are just beginning to blush — Early Girls usually ripen in 60 days; these have been in the ground for 90. Too many cool, fog-bound days.

“We get by, pay the bills, make the payroll the rest of the year,” he says. “But tomatoes are a cash crop and usually make some difference.” He waves at the 350-foot rows of Brandywines, Juliettes, a nameless Mexican heirloom, Green Grapes, Valentines, Cherokee purples, Evergreens ... The air has that sharp, green, almost skunky scent of sun-warmed tomato plants. “That’s a $30,000 investment.” There are plenty of tomatoes, but they’re green, hard as tennis balls, all waiting for the sun.

I have been eating the Carpenters’ organic produce for years now — anonymously, of course. Coastal Organics’ fruits and vegetables are favored by Los Angeles chefs who are flocking in ever-increasing numbers to certified farmers markets. A few days earlier, at Carpenter’s stall in the Santa Monica Wednesday market, I’d sneaked a peek at the order form for Ronde de Nice squash alone (they’re an adorable round zuke) and saw requests from AOC, Campanile, Ammo, Brentwood, Capo, Chameau, Granita and the House. Some wanted the squash walnut sized, others the size of eight balls. “Half of what we grow goes to restaurants,” Carpenter says out in the sunny but still cool morning air. “They know what they want, they pay, and they buy in decent volume. We select everything we grow by keeping in mind how a restaurant could or would want to use it.”

Carpenter also grows lettuce, chard, Persian cucumbers, Italian sprouting brocolli, and many kinds of beans and squash — the adorable, round Ronde de Nice, finger-sized zukes and pretty, straight yellow Sunbursts, a variety he selected because its attaching tip is green, not yellow. He shows me a crate of French string beans, all remarkably and, it turns out, intentionally straight. “I water the bushes a lot so they grow up tall, and pull it off when the blossoming starts.” Thus, the plants are tall enough that the beans can hang without touching and then curl along the ground. Another bean, Gigantes Española, a fava-shaped shell bean now with flowers as big as white sweet peas, grows on a hurricane fence; the original seeds, a small bucketful, came from Campanile. Now, they’re a regular crop popular with AOC, Campanile, the Getty.

Farming, selling at the markets — it looks, if not idyllic, at least appealing.

“It’s so damn expensive. It’s not the equipment, it’s feeding yourself till your business builds up,” Carpenter says. “The learning curve is tough. Not the growing — but getting rid of the stuff. It takes a long time to make a living from it.”

And now that he’s succeeded in making that living — is it a good life?

Carpenter smiles a farmer’s private laconic smile. “No complaints. I’ve been married 34 years and in ag all the time. Ag is very volatile, whether you’re working for yourself or somebody else . . .” He thinks a moment. “There’s no way out of agriculture. Once you do this for a long time, what else do you know?”

—Michelle Huneven

Scheherazade Speaks

Reading to a standing-room-only crowd at Skylight Books last Saturday night, Heidi Julavits, author of the new novel The Effect of Living Backwards and co-editor (with Ed Park and Vendela Vida) of McSweeney’s new magazine The Believer, takes to the podium in a relaxed and free-associative mood wearing a yellow sleeveless blouse and flip-flops. This is the woman christened the “It Critic’s Critic” in Entertainment Weekly’s “It List” issue, and her delivery style is, to borrow a word Julavits uses to describe a Toby Olson novel, “Scheherazade-y.” Like the narrator of A Thousand and One Nights, she enthralls the crowd with humorous descriptions of her inability to sleep in hotels, the “beauty of air mattresses,” the continued mispronunciation of her name (“Joo-lavits”), and a forthcoming Believer essay about how our very appearance at public readings of literature is “contributing to the end of civilization as we know it.”

Maybe it is civilization she’s trying to save when she forgoes her longer pre-reading introduction because, she says, it is “a bit of a buzz-kill.” “I am going to read nine pages,” she explains. “I want you to be aware of the extent to which you will be expected to sit.” Julavits promises to flash the audience a sign when she reaches her final paragraphs so readers who have let their attentions wander can “tune back in.”

This crowd, however, doesn’t seem to be the short-attention-span type. Mostly other writers, editors and various independent-bookstore patrons (eyeglasses abound!), the audience has come in large part to hear Julavits talk about The Believer, which is being scarfed up by fans of McSweeney’s, Grand Street, and Hermenaut for its long and in-depth essays. Consider the guy who awaited Julavits’ arrival in a sea of empty seats by chuckling his way through The Tenacity of the Cockroach, a collection of interviews with pop-culture figures from the satirical weekly The Onion.

Julavits returns to her “buzz-kill intro” during the question-and-answer session, when she talks about completing her novel before 9/11 — the plot concerns an airplane hijacking — and having to rethink the “nonspecific now-future” in which the book’s events originally took place. When a woman asks what, exactly, makes a “good counter-terrorist,” Julavits demurs. The author does confess that she was more concerned that the events in her book “were hardly fictional terrain all of the sudden.”

Some questioners try to unlock the secret to The Believer’s success, but her controversial book-reviewing essay goes unmentioned. Instead, Julavits is asked a more typical writing question: What authors have influenced you? Julavits speaks of the inspiration she’s found in Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist. And then there’s Philip Roth: “I like his head a lot.”

—Anthony Miller


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