Last tango in Fiddletown
Deep down, Rachel Fields has always wanted to be a tango dancer, but so far things haven’t quite worked out that way. Fair warning: Rachel is one of those people who can make you feel (not deliberately, of course) that you haven’t done enough with your life. At the tender age of 31, she has studied abroad in Chile, motorcycled through Africa, learned how to make olive oil in Sicily, and learned Spanish, Portugese and Italian. She’s worked with immigrants, in a family planning clinic and counseling high-school students. Like many at some point in our lives, she also did a stint in the food service industry, but not at some fast-food joint or the local chain franchise—at Chez Panisse! All this after a childhood spent in what she calls “the middle of nowhere,” with parents who raised cows, sheep and chickens and grew grapes in the Sierra foothills west of Sacramento.
There’s more: Rachel is with CALM because—like more than a few of us, including this reporter— she turned to swimming after injuring herself in another sport. Running? Biking? Soccer? Tennis? No,no—not this girl. Rachel was previously an aficionada of the Brazilian combination of dance and mayhem known as Capoeira. If you’ve never heard of it, check it out: it looks like a cross between tai chi and kick-boxing set to music (and not in a cage). Introduced to the activity by a Brazilian boyfriend, she found it quite habit-forming, and for three years was practicing and
“playing” several times a week. “It’s very playful, very joking—and also very dangerous!”, she says. After injuring her achilles tendon—and because she wasn’t entirely comfortable with what she came to see as the “cultural appropriation” aspects of its growing popularity—she is now done with Capoeira. Our gain—Capoeira’s loss.
Rachel is now a 1:30 lane regular at morning CALM workouts at Golden Bear (you likely wouldn’t recognize her from the picture—she wears a cap and looks much different with all that lovely hair tucked away). Despite only recently returning to the pool, she comes from a swimming background, having participated on age-group swim teams before dropping the sport in high school. Her father’s side of the family includes several avid swimmers, and he is himself a former Masters swimmer, and would still be but for a lack of the opportunity out in the boondocks.
Rachel grew up somewhere on the far outskirts of Elk Grove east of Sacramento, which, if not really the “middle of nowhere,” is a good enough facsimile. She describes herself growing up as a rural California kinda gal, but it’s really a bit more complicated than that. Despite the impression that may have been conveyed by the above mention of her family’s bucolic existence with the cows and sheep and grapes, etc., her parents are not farmers…nor hippies; he is a medical doctor with a family practice in the tiny Sierra gold country village of Fiddletown, and she a professor of Latin American Studies at Sacramento State. Rachel calls them quite “bougie” (sp?)—a term unfamiliar to this writer, but probably short for bourgeois. Also, she is an only child, and of Sicilian and Jewish extraction, which lineages are reflected in her striking features and skin tone. Thus, she stood out a bit from the small rural population around her, both by virtue of her physical appearance, and her father’s prominent role in the community. Also, despite being what Rachel describes as “evangelical atheists”, her parents sent her to a Jewish “Sunday school” for a time. “I grew up as a jew in a place where there were no jews,” she says. “There was a certain amount of anti-semitism as I was growing up.”
Growing up, Rachel nursed ambitions to write children’s books and own a bed-and-breakfast… and—later—to be a tango dancer. But when it came time for college she took herself off to UC Santa Cruz. “I went to Santa Cruz to become a hippie,” she claims, but four years down the road she had developed a different vocation: “When I left Santa Cruz, I knew I wanted to work with immigrants.” It’s an interest and a passion that may even hark back to her childhood, when she saw her father treat undocumented workers who were barred from getting medical insurance in her home.
After graduating with a (very Santa Cruz-ish) degree in Community Studies, she spent some years sandwiching “social worky” internships between trips to Senegal and and Italy. It was on a visit to Sicily to explore her ancestral roots (and learn how to make olive oil) that she observed the terrible treatment of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, and resolved to return to the U.S. and get started on her life’s work. While interning with a social services program for day-laborers in S.F., and working in a pre-school program, she began to see the importance of health care issues in social welfare. “I always thought of myself as a humanities/social science person,” she says, “but I began to see health as a ‘big picture’ issue.” After working at a family planning clinic in Oakland, she began taking science classes at Laney College and thinking about a career in health care. She decided she might actually want to be a doctor: “I love hearing people’s stories—I’m really nosy; I love touching people; I like investigation.”
She completed her medical school pre-requisites at Mills College, and applied to several schools a little over a year ago. True to her penchant for more non-traditional educational experiences and social work, she chose the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program (JMP), in which students earn a Master’s Degree in the Health and Medical Sciences at Berkeley’s School of Public Health as
well as an MD. The program seeks to prepare primary care physicians for leadership roles in the social, ethical and human aspects of medicine. Sounds like a good fit, and indeed Rachel was accepted and entered the program in June of 2016, one of only 16 individuals accepted each application year.
After completing the first lap of the 5-year program this May, Rachel displays none of the combination of relief, exhaustion and signs of incipient burnout sometimes associated with first- year medical students. She speaks enthusiastically of her Program, which is largely run by the students themselves, and uses an approach called Problem-based Learning, in which students work with case studies that reflect their own curiosity. In addition to her studies, Rachel volunteers in an after-school program for Oakland high school students who are interested in the health sciences. She loves working with teens, she says, “because they reflect everything back to you.”
This summer, while on break from the JMP, she will be going back to Fiddletown to help out in her father’s medical office a couple of days a week, as she has on occasion in the past. Often, patients she sees will remark that she and “the Doctor” kind of look alike, but some have also asked to be seen by her, perhaps preferring her approach to what she describes as her father’s more “old school” bedside manner. As would be any proud father—especially one perhaps nursing hopes his daughter will take over his practice—he is more pleased than annoyed by this, even as he points out that his charming assistant is only a first-year medical student.
While she doesn’t rule out a rural practice in the distant future, for now Rachel has grown attached to the allures of city-life. Thus she is choosing to commute to Fiddletown from her home in Berkeley which she shares with her boyfriend, Tim and their beloved cat. (He—she wanted to be sure was mentioned here—is very handsome!—and a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at the Wright Institute in Berkeley. The cat is also very good looking as felines go, and pretty intelligent to boot.)
So we can look forward to Rachel’s lively presence at CALM workouts for some time come—even in light of her loaded schedule. “I have to exercise!” she exclaims, “or else I’ll go crazy.”