Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why I Cried at Two Weddings and Other Musings on Marriage Equality and Being One of The Gays

I don’t remember a lot about that day just that it was sunny and warm, the kind of day one hopes for when having a wedding outside, under the trees somewhere in Northern California wine country.  Now weddings are not something I would normally write about, in fact they are, in general, a bit disconcerting to me, what with all that heterosexual privilege, taffeta, and bad dancing.  But this wedding, for just a few moments, was special to me.

Anto was my friend and colleague, a driven student with a clever mind and we were in graduate school together.  She was marrying Chris who had his lesbian sister serve as “best man.” My girlfriend at the time (Karen) and I went to the wedding and sat in the back row, squinting and sweating under the mid-day sun as the officiate began saying the usual stuff you hear at weddings.    Back then I had no vision of myself as a settling-down-gettin’-hitched kind of person, for a variety of reasons.  But as I sat there slightly removed, the officiate suddenly made a sharp turn in a direction I wasn’t expecting.

She said something to the effect of Anto and Chris hoping for and looking forward to the day when all people could be legally married in the US.  Now this was the mid-90s, the post-DOMA world, long before Gavin Newsome started marrying the gays and before Prop 8 and the Mormon funded campaign supporting it. So this mention of equality came out of nowhere and hit me like a sneaky emotional kick in the gut.  Tears started streaming down my face and I could not stop them—not even my usual strategy of silently doing math problems in my head could stop the gush of emotion.  I looked over at Karen and saw that she too was crying.  We squeezed each other’s hands and let the tears come.  That was the first time. 

More than a decade later it happened again on the other side of the country in MA.  I was with my then partner, J-, and we were attending our first legal queer wedding, not long after the MA Supreme Court ruled such marriages were protected under the Commonwealth’s Constitution.  I was in the last gut-wrenching stages of ending of my ten year relationship with J- so I was not really romanticizing marriage—I was actually downright cynical and profoundly sad. But with J- and a couple of friends we dressed in our fancy duds and headed east to a small town on Cape Cod.  The officiate, Rachel Maddow, (yes, that Rachel Maddow) started the ceremony and then read from the MA Court ruling.  And motherfucker, here they came again, the uncontrollable tears.  I looked down the row of seats—all the gays were crying. 

In both the above situations it was not wedding sentiment that fueled my tears, it was not the “oh they’re so beautiful and in love” sort of thing that made me cry—I don’t really go for that stuff and I have been to a lot of weddings.  Usually I just feel out of place until hitting the reception and getting a couple of drinks in me.  Weddings are just so NOT queer friendly (in general).  The reason I cried is hard to put into words.  Hearing the simple acknowledgment in those two situations was a taste of something I never knew I was starving for—it’s like eating a small piece of bread when you’re starving, it tastes so good, it gives you something, but it’s not enough and it brings into clearer focus that you are starving.  It’s bittersweet.

Heterosexism is the water I swim in, I know nothing different.  I have never been straight, I have never been “normal”, and my romantic relationships have never been institutionally acknowledged let alone celebrated.  And Anto and Chris’ wedding is the only straight wedding I remember hearing any sort of acknowledgement of the marriage inequality and discrimination faced by queer folks. 

Homo discrimination, of course, is not limited to marriage inequality.  In the course of my adult life, I have seen and read about queer folks being ridiculed, harassed, beat up, and killed.  I still remember standing on 4th Street in Long Beach in front of a queer restaurant, looking down at the sidewalk, solemnly noting the very spot where a gay man had recently been stabbed and killed—a hate crime long before they called it such.  I have dropped my girlfriend’s hand while walking in small towns in the south and in Texas and Utah.  I remember a road trip, driving around the country and being in some backwoods campsite where some folks sported confederate flags, and telling my then girlfriend to not be too familiar with me lest folks figure out we were together—not because I am a pussy, not because I was ashamed, but because I feared harassment or violence or both.

To have any reference of my gayness being acceptable I had to seek sources of support—the Women’s Center at CSUF, The Center in Long beach, books and magazines, teachers, feminists, and friends.  The mainstream of my experience, the messages I had always been bombarded with did not validate my experiences, EVER.  And I do not mean just the mainstream media where conservative politicians and preachers ranted about “unnatural acts” and perversion and inherent pedophilia.  I don’t mean just the lack of representation in movies, magazines, history books, billboards, and newspapers.  I also mean experiences like the time I was in a crowded theatre watching some chick-flick, holding my girlfriend’s hand in the dark. In the movie the protagonist had a gay man for a best friend and neighbor, and in one scene the man was shown in his bed with his boyfriend, not touching, just reading the paper and drinking coffee.  The audience gasped, gave a grossed-out “ooh” and then let out an uncomfortable laugh.  My heart sank.  These people are disgusted by me and they don’t even know me. 

And beyond the media there were other face-to-face in-the-street experiences such as my regular encounters with the Reverend Lou Sheldon and the traditional Values Coalition in Orange County.  Lou and his followers were outspoken about the perils and sinful nature of the gays.  At political rallies, and gay pride parades and festivals, we were always met by a substantial crew of hostile folks wielding signs quoting the Old Testament, or sporting more direct assertions, “God Hates Fags” and “Homos will Burn in Hell,” and the like.  No one in the mainstream media got outraged by their behavior.  In Orange County in the 1980s, there was an implicit tacit tolerance, if not support, for Lou and his ideas and followers. 

The above is just a tiny tiny sample of the messages and experiences I have had in my life, the first 25 years of which were spent living in Orange County.  And they represent an incessant and pervasive message: gay is bad, gross, unacceptable.  And what I am describing here is such a shallow characterization.  The profundity of the affects of heterosexism and homophobia are too deep and complex to contemplate completely.  And I haven’t even touched on butch-phobia.  I could write a dissertation on that alone. 

I have been known to say that the day I moved to San Francisco I exhaled for the first time.  I had escaped from behind the Orange Curtain (Orange County is one of the most conservative counties in the country).  In San Francisco I could walk the streets as a butch woman, hold my girlfriend’s hand and think nothing of it.  And then I spent two and a half years in my Women Studies MA program at SFSU studying my ass off, shoulder to shoulder with brilliant young feminists from all over the country and from disparate disciplines.  And it precipitated a leap forward in my own self-acceptance and confidence.  Chapter 2, I called it.  Things were different from then on. 

Living quietly and homo-ly in the west side of San Francisco, hunkering down on campus with my head in books and journals, socializing with feminists and young folks and hanging out in the Mission and the Castro, I for the first time lived nestled in a hospitable environment.  There were no Lou Sheldons to meet me at demonstrations or SF street fairs—there were gays everywhere and no one gave a rat’s ass.  It was a respite, a relief from something I didn’t realize how much I needed to be relieved from.  And I had a grand time in my new insular world with my smart and savvy friends, my dyke and feminist mentors in my academic bubble.  

But nothing like that lasts forever.  Things were going to change and it was going to hurt along the way.  In 2000 Prop 22 was on the ballot, an initiative in CA that defined marriage as being between one man and one woman, ostensibly outlawing same-sex marriage.  The vote was 61% in favor of Prop 22.  I remember not being surprised, having no expectation of any other outcome.  I had no optimism that things were going to change anytime soon.  And so life went on, and I went to straight weddings and waited for the drinks and bad dancing, knowing that, usually, few or none in attendance had any clue of how I felt at such an event.

Prop 22 was challenged in the courts and finally made it’s way to the CA Supreme Court where it was ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the equal protection clause.  And then San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, god bless him, started immediately marrying same sex folks in San Francisco. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, thousands of queer folks inundating the steps of SF City Hall. It was a beautiful thing.  But we all knew it wouldn’t last.  And it didn’t.  And so it was that Prop 8 was born.

Two months before the 2008 general election, Prop 8 was losing by 22% points in the polls.  And then some prick Catholic priest from Oakland thought that was unacceptable and headed south to San Diego, CA, where he galvanized a bunch of rich evangelicals and Mormons who then dumped 40 million dollars into the “yes on Prop 8” coffers.  In those last two months before the election, Prop 8 supporters launched a nefarious and profoundly effective disinformation add campaign—and it worked.  We were caught flat-footed, our adds sucked (Diane Feinstein prattling on about some abstract notion of fairness?  Are you kidding me?).  The Yes folks went right for the guts, the emotional response, and they scared the shit out of the complacent conservative masses. 

November X, 2008, Election Day, was one wrought with emotion.  I spent the day holding “No on Prop 8” signs at polling stations and on street corners in the relatively conservative town of Hayward, just south of Oakland.  Most folks honked and gave a thumbs up or said, “don’t worry, I’m voting no.”  But more than a few flipped us off, spat out their windows, or screamed mean things.  After this rollercoaster of a day I walked into my house at exactly 8pm.  Jimmy was sitting on the couch watching CNN and I stood there, exhausted, and looked at the TV.  At exactly 20 seconds after 8pm CNN projected Obama as the winner.  I was flooded with emotion and started crying.  More than tears of joy, the joy of electing the first black president (and a brilliant one at that), they were tears of relief—the Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld years of insanity were over.  No matter what happened, it would be better than that. 

My friends, four queer friends, came over shortly after and we popped champagne and watched Obama’s acceptance speech.  More tears.  Hope.  And then about 9:30pm the preliminary results were being reported, Prop 8 was ahead and the projections were that it would pass.  Karen and Penny, my friends who were married during the 18 months same sex marriage was legal in CA, looked stunned.  Karen was soon going to give birth to Calder, their first child, and since Penny and she were legally married, Penny was to be listed on the birth certificate as the legal guardian.  Penny stated the obvious, “I now don’t know if I am going to be the legal guardian of my child.”* The mood shifted, we were all torn by emotions, the joy of electing Obama, the sadness and uncertainty of the passing of Prop 8.  We knew it was just the beginning of more fighting, more debate about the legitimacy of our relationships, more rants of bigotry and ignorance, more vilification, and, sometimes, more hate.  Oh goody. 

In the last several years there have been 34 state initiatives across the country concerning marriage equality; 33 cases were successful against the rights of queer folks.  The one pro-gay initiative that passed in Arizona was quickly overturned by another initiative.  I’m going to state the obvious here, the rights of a minority never get supported when put to a vote.  Rights are rights, they should not be subject to the whims of the majority. 

And then it happened, President Obama, after a long “evolution” (I think the evolution was more a political one than a personal one), came out in support of marriage equality.  I sat on my couch and watched hours of the talking heads on cable covering the story, the occasional tears escaping my eyes.  I never imagined a sitting president, in my lifetime, would cop to such a thing.  I’ll be damned.  Things are changing faster than I ever expected.  Shortly after Obama made his announcement, Benjamin Jealous, President of the NAACP, announced that their Board of Directors voted 62 to 2 in support of marriage equality.  Mr. Jealous was emotional during the press conference, noting that it was personal for him—his parents, an interracial couple, had not been allowed to legally marry in the state of Maryland and had to drive to Washington DC to get hitched.  To the NAACP, this was an equivalent, a civil rights issue through and through.  I think this announcement, this expression of political will on the part of the NAACP is profound and will have an influence on it’s constituency and beyond.  And it was damn moving to watch Mr. Jealous make the announcement, teary interruptions and all. 

And then I heard that the governor of Maryland recently signed a marriage equality law making it legal for same sex couples to marry in that state.  Ok, good on him, good on the Maryland State Legislature.  But here’s the amazing part.  In a Poll in March of this year, support for marriage equality was up 8%.  Pretty good margin.  By May, this had improved by 12% points, showing a 20% margin of those supporting marriage equality.  Wow.  That’s a healthy jump.  But looking deeper into the results showed that within the African American population there had been a 36% jump in support for marriage equality, from -8% in March to +19% in May. Damn.  Double damn.  Thank you Mr. President.  Thank you NAACP.  And thank you, folks of Maryland, for seeing the light.

Announcements like these, hearing the President acknowledge the legitimacy of my experience and the romantic relationships in my community, is something like those early days, at Anto’s wedding, and then years later in MA listening to Rachel Maddow read from the MA Supreme Court ruling—it’s a bittersweet feeling. But things are changing.  In my lifetime the discourse has gone from rants about unnatural acts and sins against nature to more nuanced arguments about tradition and civil unions—still discriminatory but one is a far long way from the other.  And seeing this change feels good.  Damn good.  

I still can’t legally marry someone in CA, and there still is no federal recognition of same sex marriages, which has profound material impacts on the lives of many queer folks, impacts I am confident most straight folks are unaware of (immigration law, inter-state marriage recognition, child guardianship, to name only a few). And I am nervous about the potential for the US Supreme Court to hear the case currently challenging Prop 8—what with the majority of jurists being conservative. There are many learned people who conjecture that if the Court does not rule in favor of equality, it will be at least a generation before a case is heard again.  If in the US District Court, our attorneys win again, and I trust they will, there is the chance the Supreme Court will not agree to hear the case and the District Court ruling will stand--there will be equality at last, across the US. 

Discrimination hurts. Having the legitimacy of your constitutional rights debated for decades by bigots, hurts.  It hurts in ways I am sure I am not even aware of or could ever hope to measure. But I never thought I would live to see this day, this day of so much rapid change in so little time.  And I am cautiously optimistic.  At 48 years old and single, I don’t know if I will ever be married, if that is in my cards in this lifetime, but if the day comes that marriage is finally recognized as one of my constitutional rights, it will be a moment of profound healing. And it will give me a new hope for the next generation of LGBT folks who will, hopefully, not know much of the bigotry I have known, and young dykes will never have to drop their girlfriend’s hand for fear of harassment or violence.  That is my hope.  

*After bouncing up through the courts, the CA Supreme Court finally ruled, inexplicably, that Prop 8 was constitutional and (or but?) the 18,000 same sex marriages performed before it passed would remain valid.  Penny, for now, will remain Calder’s legal guardian in the State of CA without further legal action.

Friday, May 4, 2012

People Tell Me Things

Today a sweet middle-aged guy came over to give me an estimate for sanding and resealing my deck. Within fifteen minutes of chatting in my backyard this man had disclosed to me the following:

He had a two pound dog that he loved very much and it died in 1999 and the ashes of the beloved dog are buried with his wife whom he accidentally ran over with his truck as the result of a catastrophic brake failure on the trailer he was towing and he was devastated and was tempted to jump off a roof at a job but he had god who helped him through but his adopted daughters don’t talk to him because they think he ran over their mother on purpose but he’s now married to a lovely Chinese woman and they are very happy and go to China twice a year and have been to very remote places there including “Women’s World” where the young folk have walking dates during which they hold hands and if the girl likes the boy she scratches his hand three times and if the boy likes her back he does the same…and the boys are thrown out of their houses at 16 years of age and are given a piece of bread and a knife to use when visiting a girl at night—the knife is to open the sliding gate to the yard and the bread is for the dog and then he must navigate over a cactus which is always planted under the girl’s window.

Seriously. Within fifteen minutes he shared all this. And there is more. Like how the village folk asked if he could sing a song and he said yes and sang Strangers in the Night and then the girls lifted him up in the air over their heads and several girls scratched his hand but he didn’t scratch back so they started pinching him when he was still up in the air.

I am not kidding. This is a true story. And this happens to me ALL THE TIME—at the bank, in book stores, at bus stops, in restaurants and in bars.

People tell me things.

Monday, February 20, 2012

My Father

It was a Friday night in December, 1998, when my sister Julie and I got the call that my father was dead. She and I and her boyfriend, Ron, were sitting in the living room of our San Francisco house sipping wine and talking when my sister Lauri rang and I answered the phone. Lauri was quick to the point, “Mer, dad died.” Julie looked up when I asked in a serious voice, “what? What happened?” I quickly said to Julie, “dad died” and she let out a gasp and a short sob. I did not. I listened to Lauri’s explanation, how he was found in his condo on the floor next to his bed, how he had apparently been there several days, how his doctor was not surprised and conjectured the cause a heart attack or stroke. I hung up the phone. I was not very sad and only mildly shocked. He was 66 years old.

There were times over the years when I spelled it out for my father, explained that his lack of ability or apparent desire to relate to his children, his cold and erratic behavior, his indifference and emotional immaturity would eventually lead him to being old and alone. It was a plea of sorts, for his sake and mine, for the sake of my four younger siblings, for the sake of their unborn but planned children, his future grandchildren. It was all to no avail. He asserted that it was his life. And he was right. And so he died alone. And I felt no guilt for that fact. I had done my due diligence, more than once, more than a hundred times. But there is a little more to the story, the story of my father’s end.

In the fall of 1998, Julie and I had not spoken to my father in five years. It was by tacit agreement, because of his inability to deal with us as adults who wanted to address some of the fucked-up-ness of his parenting and the traumas of our youth. He had no interest in such a thing. Julie and I had discussed it at length and concluded finally that the costs of a relationship with my father were far greater than any benefit. And so we simply made no effort to be in contact with him. That lasted till the fall 1998.

Earlier that year Julie and Ron had their first child, Devyn, and my sister Lauri and her husband had their son, Ian. Lauri had remained in touch with my father and so he had met Ian, but he had never met Devyn. One afternoon Julie asked me if we might invite my father to thanksgiving dinner, let him meet Devyn, just to be kind, to close that loop if nothing else. I thought for only a moment before saying yes. And so it was arranged, through my sister Lauri, an invitation to James Lee to join us for Thanksgiving. He said yes.

It was a four hour drive to Lauri’s house on the Central Coast where we all met for Thanksgiving. I remember the drive, being a bit nervous as I contemplated meeting my father for the first time in five years. I thought about the letter I had written him before our split, how I had shared my recollections of his abuse and had made a few simple requests. His response was written and included the line, “I have consulted with my minister and attorney and I am asking you to cease and desist.” My father was not a religious man and I had no idea what minister he was referring to, but his legal assertion made it clear he feared I was planning to sue him. I was not. The thought had never crossed my mind, not once.

One of the things I had asserted in that letter to my father is that I would never again call him “dad,” that hence forth I would refer to him by his first name, Jim. Although I did not share this in the letter, for me the word “dad” had become deeply marred, perverted beyond redemption. Calling him Jim also signified that I would no longer relate to him as a dependent daughter. I would be something closer to his equal, at the very least, an adult.

As we pulled up to Lauri’s house early that afternoon on Thanksgiving Day, my heart raced, my adrenaline surged, my breathing was rapid and shallow. I stopped on the porch to take a deep breath, then I opened the door and immediately saw my father sitting across the room. I stepped aside and Julie, Ron, and Devyn entered before me as my other siblings shouted hellos and rushed to the door with smiles and hugs. At last I walked towards my father and was shocked by what I saw. In those five years he had become an old man, thin and pale—his skin sagged and he looked depleted and small. He stood before me, trembling slightly, his eyes watering and filled with fear. I reached out my hand, smiling, and said, “hello Jim.” He shook my hand and said, “hello Marie, nice to see you.” And then he relaxed a little and so did I.

The rest of the day and evening was a strange kind of normal. We all helped prepare the meal, chit-chatted, joked, drank wine. There was no discussion of the past, of the splits, the abuse, the letters. And then early in the evening my father said he was heading back to his hotel because he wasn’t feeling well. It’s the last time any of us saw my father. Two weeks later, he was dead.

The day after my sister Lauri called with the news of my father’s death, all four of my siblings met at our house in San Francisco where we rented a minivan and drove towards my father’s home in Reno, Nevada. During the four hour drive we talked and laughed and despite the solemnity of the occasion, we had a good time together. We arrived at our hotel late that evening and settled in before heading to the casino where we parked ourselves at a two-dollar black jack table and played cards until 3am, getting drunk on free beers the waitresses kept coming. My father was a long time compulsive gambler and we thought it a fitting way to bid him farewell. We cracked each other up, laughed with abandon, and we all left the table with more money than we started with.

The next day we met our Aunt Estelle at our father’s condo. As soon as we opened the door we were smacked with the distinct and overwhelming stench of death. Although my father’s body had been removed, the smell of his death remained in the stained carpet next to his bed where he had fallen. Despite the freezing winter temperatures we immediately scattered to open all the windows to air out the place. And then we started the strange journey of considering the state of our dead father’s home, the place he had lived out his final years.

The place was a mess. Every available plane was covered with junk mail, magazines, newspapers, and porn. The furniture, the dishes, the towels and bedspreads, almost everything in the condo was familiar. The place was filled with the mundane things of our youth, the simple comforts of our family home, the home we had left years ago, after my mother’s death and before my father bought the condo and retired to Reno. And there was some hint of what my father had done for the past five years. He was apparently a man taking stock, looking back, perhaps trying to make some sense of things. This was quite unexpected.

Covering the living room wall were cheap picture frames filled with pieces of my father’s life. There were old pictures of family I had never known, pictures of him standing next to airplanes, a lunar capsule, SpaceLab, the projects that he, as an engineer, had contributed to in his 30-year long career in Aerospace. There were pictures of him in the army and as a young man, a teenager, a child. Also framed were his high school diploma, achievement certificates from work, and the BS degree he earned later in life going to night classes at Long Beach State. And there were pictures of us, his children, at various ages—school pictures and sports team pictures, and a few snap shots of family holidays and such. The frames were hung randomly, close together, completely covering the large wall—they were crooked, didn’t match and were cheap like what you find in a Walgreens. I stood there looking at what my father had deemed worthy of his wall, and in some way, I was shocked to see that I had made it up there. It was an irrational response, perhaps, but it was how I felt.

We were all surprised to see evidence of my father’s apparent self-reflection. In his condo he had never received one of his children as a guest. Not one of us, not once, had visited him. This was not the result of some kind of cruelty on our part. It was simply the logical upshot of the choices my father had made. It was an equation of his making and this scene, his isolation, his lonely death, is what logically followed the equal sign at the end of that equation.

My father was a veteran having served four years in the army, stationed in Germany during the Korean War, and was therefore eligible for veteran burial benefits. The instructions in his living trust were simple and explicit, he wanted to be buried in the veterans cemetery in Sparks, Neveda, just outside of Reno. We all agreed to cremating his partially decomposed body and then made arrangements for the funeral and his burial at the cemetery.

The funeral was attended by me and my siblings, our partners, Devyn and Ian, two longtime family friends of my brother’s, and my Aunt Estelle. The only other guests were an older couple who lived in my father’s condo building, and two older women from the Red Cross where my father had volunteered. The service was short with a perfunctory reading of some military stuff, a thank-you-for-serving-your-country kind of thing read by an ancient veteran, and then a 21-gun salute that scared the shit out of Devyn and Ian. One of the vets folded a flag and handed it to my Aunt Estelle indicating that he thought she was my father’s surviving widow. No one stood up and said anything else. And then it was over.

Soon after the service Julie and I headed back to the condo to continue cleaning and sorting my father’s belongings. The doorbell rang and I answered it and saw the neighbor man who attended the funeral. He stood there, serious, sadness in his eyes and said, “I thought you girls should know this. Your father came home from Thanksgiving very excited because he said he had reconciled with his girls. That’s all. I just thought you should know.” We thanked the man and then he left. Julie and I looked at each other quizzically, “reconciled with his girls?” There was no way for us to know that on that Thanksgiving Day my father was trying, in his own way, to reconcile things in his life, in his waning years and declining health. And perhaps Julie and I had a place in his contemplations, were on some list of things-to-do in his head. And although Julie and I had not considered our meeting with our father any sort of reconciliation, our father had. And I think it interesting that it was only days after that Thanksgiving meeting that he died.

I do not miss my father. I cried little after he died and this stood in stark contrast to the devastating and protracted grief I experienced when my mother died nine years earlier. But a few months after my father’s death I was punched in the gut by something unexpected. It was sparked by a book I read.

My Old Man and the Sea is the true story of a father and son who sailed a 25-foot engineless sloop around Cape Horn. The book’s format is an alternating perspective, one chapter written by the son, the next by the father, and so on. It presents an honest and loving relationship between a father and his grown son, including the father’s encouragement and acceptance of his son being the skipper, the two of them working together on a small boat, sharing a challenging adventure, joking and laughing, talking about life, love, women, and sailing. It’s the kind of relationship I would have wanted with a father. And as I finished the book I was overwhelmed with grief. And I sobbed. I realized that somewhere inside me there had still lived a little girl who harbored that dream, the dream of having a kind father, a father who was a mentor and could become a friend, a father who cheered me on and celebrated my success. And as unreasonable as that hope may have been, it was now, finally, crushed by the death of my father. It would never happen.

I did not mourn my father. I mourned the father I never had.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Why I Support the Occupy Movement

Recently someone very close to me, an educated, liberal sympathetic soul who lives in the Bay Area asked me why I support the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, specifically the Occupy Oakland (OO) folks. This person noted that OO is making no specific demands and are causing damage to public property – the person also cited the estimate they read in the paper that it will cost $60.000 to reseed the grass area in Frank Ogowa Plaza once OO is gone (to which my initial response is, dude, me and my friends could do that for like $55,000 dollars less than whoever gave that estimate!). This person is a good person, someone who reads the paper, a few of them actually, and is thoughtful. Nonetheless he could not decipher the importance of OO/OWS. This is my response to his inquiry.

I am an amateur political junky, have been for many years with varying degrees of intensity. I read papars, magazines, watch the pundits on cable, talk with folks, argue. I feel it is my obligation to be somewhat informed and for the last few years I have watched this country spiral into something that started to scare the hell out of me.

I watched as an arrogant and insular Bush Administration squandered the post-9/11 sympathy of the world by invading two countries like a reckless cowboy. I watched as Afghanis and Iraqis and American soldiers died day after day, month after month, and then year after year as we all grew numb to the notion of it all. I watched as deregulation fueled the growing economic inequality in this country, the inequality initiated by Reagan’s economic policies and further exacerbated by Bush Sr., Clinton, and George W. I watched as the 2010 mid-term elections produced a radical right surge that precipitated some of the most regressive laws in Wisconsin, Ohio, Maine, Arizona, etc. I watched as the Koch brothers and their astroturf organizations such Americans for Prosperity duped and then fomented the rage of low income, ignorant, racist, white people into Tea Party actions that supported politicians who voted for policies that would severely injure those very same people. I watched as Tea Partiers talked about “taking back our country” as though some crime had been committed because the majority of the US population elected a black president. I watched as the markets crashed and the disgusting greed and criminal behavior of Wall Street was exposed. I watched as the Obama administration made no arrests, made no indictments against those who had clearly violated the law. I watched as the Robert’s court in Citizen United insanely ruled that corporations have the right to free speech.

Then I watched the mom-and-pop stores in my neighborhood close their doors after 20, 30, 40, 50 years of being in business, because of the economic crash and those criminal banks refusal to give credit to small businesses despite the government bailouts. I watched the foreclosure signs go up in my neighborhood, on my street, and I watched my neighbors solemnly pack their U-Hauls and drive away in shame. I watched as my own property value plummeted, as I got a note from the County Assessor telling me my house was worth a fraction of what it was assessed at only five years ago. I watched as my colleagues working for federal and state agencies had their pay cut, their staff decimated, their hours cut and then were asked to work more for that lower pay. And then I watched as the 2012 Presidential campaign emerged as the most insane, ironic, are-you-fucking-kidding-me farce since Joseph McCarthy was hurling accusations of un-American Activity.

And what did I do about all this? Nothing. Not one god damn thing. Oh sure, I made my political contributions, money I mean. I bitched at the water cooler, I wrote a tirade or three, a letter or five, I ranted to family and friends, but to what affect? None to little, I would guess. I felt powerless, impotent. And in the past couple of years I started to feel a little hopeless, my usual stalwart optimism began to fade. I, for the first time ever, thought of living abroad. I have studied enough history to be scared by what has happened in this country the last few years, yet nothing I did or said had any material impact on the insane political discourse. Nothing I did or said made the Koch brothers go away or stop buying politicians. Nothing I said or did made Congress enact stricter regulations on Wall Street, or act at all! Nothing I said or did inspired anyone to act, to get up off their asses and march in the streets or demand social justice. Nope. Not one god damn thing did I make happen.

And then two months ago a small group of young folks, apparently inspired by the actions in Egypt and the Arab Spring, pitched their tents in Zuccoti Park. And then something unimaginable happened. People started pitching tents in cities and small towns across this country and beyond, around the world occupiers took to the streets, town centers, government buildings. In over 90 countries there have been more than 1000 occupy actions. What those kids did in NYC changed the conversation in this country and beyond. Two months ago the Republicans were prattling on about spending cuts and deficit reduction, something every single reputable economist ON BOTH SIDES of the political spectrum agree would be disastrous in our current great recession In state government the newly elected radical Republicans were leading union busting and gross privatization initiatives that would further devastate the middle class in this country. That was the conversation. Now the conversation is the 99%, Wall Street regulation and accountability, income inequality, further exposure of the Koch brothers and the barely imaginable insanity resulting from Citizens United.

And then the OWS folks inspired an unprecedented move, folks moved their money from big-banks to Credit Unions and community banks, over one billion - that’s one billion dollars – was moved within a month. OWS has sparked demonstrations and marches in cities around the world. My city, Oakland, had it’s first general strike since the 1940s, successfully shutting down the fifth largest port in the country. There were more protesters there than any demonstration in the East Bay (including BEREKELEY!) since the Vietnam Era. And I was there. I saw the people in the streets. They were not, I assure you, just a bunch of hippies. They were teachers, kids, cops, firefighters, Marines, construction workers, bank tellers, students, etc. They were the work-a-day people, middle and working -class casualties of the economic crimes committed by Wall Street, and I dare say, our own government’s inaction. And they have helped changed the conversation.

I don’t give a fuck about the reseeding of the grass area in Frank Ogowa Plaza when OO is finally over. That is a trivial matter relative to the crises facing the majority of the folks in this country. That is a trivial matter when one considers the state of things in Oakland. This City is notorious for it’s crime, it’s high murder rate, it’s sex-trafficking, it’s blight. That Mayor Jean Quan makes the reseeding of the Plaza grass an issue at all is blatantly political and manipulative. This City has intractable problems, real problems, that SHOULD pale the impacts of those folks camping in Frank Ogawa Plaza. Mayor Quan authorized hundreds of thousands of (some accounts say over a million) City dollars for the police to brutally evict OO and then fire upon non-violent protesters.

And yes, there have been some anarchists and violent elements at some of the protests, a very small minority. But what does Mayor Quan and the world expect in a City with an impoverished minority population that has been at best ignored and at worst brutalized by the OPD? There is a preexisting rage in this City, a justifiable rage and at times in the OO demonstrations that rage has expressed violently. But this has been the exception, not the rule. And the organizers of OO have stepped in, tried to defuse the tensions, have over and over emphasized non-violence. I have seen this again and again with my own eyes, I have heard it with my own ears.

I have been to OO and Occupy San Francisco several times and have attended three marches, one in San Francisco and two in Oakland. I have wandered the camps, talked to people, made donations, read the literature. I have seen the homeless there, the Haight Street type kids in their grungy clothes playing angry folk songs on beat up guitars. Those kids who have ALWAYS been at the bottom of the 99% but no one seemed to notice or care enough to change that. Now, for the first time, the clarion call is for ALL of the 99% and they feel part of something. They feel seen. They see that their voices can be part of something bigger than their little cohort of bruised and battered friends begging in the streets and then trying to keep warm in the parks on a winter night. I have also seen the other young folks, the educated folk who are working to keep this thing peaceful and enduring. And they, by and large, have been successful despite the aggressive and sometimes ridiculous actions of the local police. So yes, the hippies, the homeless, the radical and idealistic are some of the people spending the nights in tents pitched on hard concrete or wet grass. But are they not part of the 99%? Is it not the system that privileges the very few at the expense of ALL of the other 99% the point of the Occupy Movement?

The way I see it, those young people sleeping in tents in Zuccotti Park, Frank Ogowa Plaza, Justin Herman Plaza and in cities and towns around the world, those people did what you and I could not. Those people successfully and nonviolently (for the most part) changed the discourse in this country and the world. They are doing our dirty work. They are doing what the young people should do and so many times in history have done. They are changing the world and we cannot yet know how that will play out, or what good may come. That is why I support the Occupy Movement, even with the homeless patchouli wearing drum beating hippies. And that is why I will continue to march and donate and support how and when I can short of pitching a tent. I encourage you all to do the same.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

At Least I am Not Allergic to Bees

It's not the way one wants to wake up from an afternoon nap on one's boat. My subconscious must have processed the information first, someone yelling, "single-hander! single-hander! your bow-line is undone!" I was out of the v-berth and bounding into the cockpit before I was really awake, knowing that I was the only single-handed sailor in the cove.  And that voice sounded way too close to be good. But then this day was weird from the start.

This summer the Bay has not been behaving the way I would like. It's been cool, extra foggy with an extra thick marine layer almost everyday, some days it doesn't burn off at all.  And I've felt my mood sinking. Grey, grey, grey - it doesn't do me well. But I needed some boat time, have barely sailed this summer compared to years past. So this morning I decided I would head to Angel Island for a day and night alone on my sweet old boat, the Donna Clare. I gathered some provisions (i.e. a steak, some wine, and my new Kindle) and headed to the marina and readied the boat for the sail. The marine layer was thick and the fog was moving quickly in through the Gate towards Berkeley and Angel Island. I headed west out of the marina and the wind picked up a little, building to 20+ knots by the time we were near the island. And then things got weird.

Usually east of the island there is a wind shadow where a sailor can drop sail and motor into Ayala Cove to moor in relative calm. But the wind started shifting, gusting, going from 10 to 20+ knots in seconds, seemingly coming from both north and south of the island, and even over the island itself. Weird. I would set the auto-helm with the boat into the wind and run to the foredeck to furl the jib and then the wind would shift and gust, fill the sails again, forcing me back to the cockpit to reset the auto-helm. I even tried, briefly, to heave-to but it didn't stick. After this game of gust-stall-switch-gust I finally wrestled in the sails and motored into Ayala Cove.

It's the weekend, Saturday afternoon, the busiest time of the week on the Bay. The cove was bustling with boats and the mooring lines were a complex web.  The wind continued to be fluky and the currents were running strong. I did a couple laps, motoring to the side of the mooring area, surveying the situation. I watched guys in dingies help another two boats moor, grabbing their bow and stern lines and looping them through the mooring buoys and then back to the boats to be tied off in a V-shape.  It's how it's done in Ayala Cove, otherwise a boat would swing in circles because of the strong currents that run with the tides (four a day, to be exact). 

After watching for a bit I swallowed hard and humbly asked a man in one of the dingies for help, explaining that I was single-handing and the mooring I was aiming for was a tight fit amongst the already tied up boats.  He obliged. After the usual comedic event that is mooring in a crowded cove, with the help of no less than three men in dingies, we tied her off, bow and stern. I finally relaxed. Mostly.

I had to moor between two spread out buoys and so needed more than 100 hundred feet of line on the bow.  This required marrying two hundred-foot lines before looping it through the buoy and back to my boat.  A man in a dingy and his young son had tied the knot and brought me the line to cleat off on the bow of Donna Clare. After it was all done, I thought about jumping in my dingy and rowing over to check the knot they had tied. I didn't. I should have. I really really should have.

I settled in, started cleaning up, coiling lines, stowing my gear, making the boat comfy for the afternoon and night. At last I sat in the cockpit to read my Kindle under the little bit of afternoon sun while the fog sat atop the island threatening to spill over into the cove. I am reading Storm Passage: Alone Around Cape Horn, a harrowing tale of a man who completed a single-handed circumnavigation via the capes, the Southern Ocean. It's an extreme thing to do and fraught with barely imaginable challenges, discomforts, and isolation - hundreds of days alone in the most hostile Ocean on Earth. I am always humbled by such stories as single-handing the Bay often scares the hell out of me! I cannot imagine being alone in the southern Ocean.

Looking over the bow of Donna Clare at the mooring
buoy from which the bow-line came free.
The wind continued to be fickle and cool so I retired to the v-birth under an open hatch. For some reason I kept looking aft, looking to see that the island was in the same place out the companionway hatch. I thought to myself that I was being a little paranoid. In retrospect, I know it's because I didn't check that knot. I didn't trust it. Always listen to your gut. It knows more than you. Seems I must learn this lesson time and again.

Then it happened, I heard the yelling for the single-hander. I was jarred from my nap, disoriented, wobbly as I bounded on deck. There we were, no bow-line, swinging towards shore, moving towards the boat moored behind me. I ran to the bow, tried to discern what had happened.  I saw both ends of the bow-line were still cleated to the deck of my boat; the knot had failed.  Men in dingies came to help, the woman in the boat to my rear helped fend the Donna Clare off her own boat.  Everyone was kind and I even heard a man on another boat say, "it could happen to anyone."  I was thankful for his comment, but ultimately, this was my fault.  I should have checked that knot. 

Looking over the stern of Donna Clare to the
 buoy that both Jim and I were moored to. 
After a good 20 minutes and lots of muscling of line we were secure again. Jim, the man skippering the boat behind me, was in his dingy and tied the knot this time. I asked him, "did you secure it, for sure?" "I used a bowline, it will save your life one day" he said with a smile. "I think it already has" I responded, grinning. The bowline is the sailors knot.  Strong as hell, easy to undue after use.  I could tie it blindfolded.  I shook his hand off the bow of my boat, reaching down to him in the dingy.  Then I suddenly acknowledged a pain I had been aware of since running up and down my deck barefoot.  I finally said "ouch" and looked down to see a bee stinging me on the bottom of my foot between my toes.  I flicked it off and checked for a stinger.  Jim looked up from his dingy and asked, "are you allergic to bees?"  "Not so far" I said.  "Well, I have an epi-pen if you start feeling weird" he added.  Good to know. 

I trust that Jim tied a good knot. He's motivated to. If the line fails it's his boat that I will swing into. "Time to open a bottle of wine" he said as he climbed back onto his own sailboat now properly behind my boat. I agreed. I am sitting in the cabin working on a glass of Prosecco and I think my heart rate and blood pressure are finally starting to slow. Again, not my preferred way to wake up from an afternoon nap.  But at least I am not allergic to bees.  Or worse yet, alone on a boat in the Southern Ocean.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Life is Laundry"

A million years ago when I was an undergrad at Cal State Fullerton, the Women Studies program decided to assign students in the program a mentor. I was assigned one Dr. S-, a crusty ol' poly-sci prof who rode horses, drank liberally, and smoked enough cigarettes to give her a voice so gravely it rivaled Tom Waitts. She was short, wicked smart, quick on her feet and definitely not warm and fuzzy.  To my young self, Prof S- was a fairly intimidating creature, aloof, always looking beyond me, thinking deep professorial thoughts I was certain.  Her office was a mess, the typical kind of professor mess, papers stacked high, books everywhere. 

I met with Prof S- only once and I still remember the encounter clearly. I sat down in the windowless office, a little nervous and waited to get "mentored". Prof S- gave me a quick, gruff "hello" and smile and then said to me, "Life is laundry." "Ok" I said, thinking "that's it? life is fucking laundry?" Our meeting was brief and I was on my way. "Life is laundry"?  That's what the brilliant Prof S- has for me?  I left thinking that was a waste of time and I never made another appointment to see Prof S- and she never again reached out to me.  Apparently, that was the extent of the mentoring I needed....or was to be afforded. 

It's been more than 20 years since I sat in Prof S-s office, nervous, waiting for her words of wisdom.  And in those 20 years I have come to realize the profound truth and utility in what she chose to say to me that day. Sometimes all your shit's dirty, a mess, the hamper is overflowing and you're wearing that last pair of underwear that you should have tossed 'cause it rides up your ass. And then there are times when all your shit is clean, neatly folded, put away in closets and drawers and you just stepped out of the shower and put on a fresh smelling shirt. And you finally tossed those old underwear AND it's friggin' sunny outside. But the one thing that remains always true, neither one of these states, or any in between, is constant. Ever. That was her point.  The older I get, the more I live, the more I see the truth in Prof S-'s little gem. And through my realization and acceptance that life is, in fact, laundry, I have learned how to not stress as much, to not beat myself up as much when my hamper is overflowing and there are the literal and proverbial dirty clothes all over the place.

And with that, and I am not kidding, I am going to go do some laundry.  The literal kind...and maybe even a little of the metaphorical kind.  We'll see. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Grief, Travel, Friendship and the Best Bar in the World

"There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."
Leonard Cohen

Mike and I met in Guatemala when we were both broken hearted, grieving, grappling with the disorienting notion of what our lives might look like after the losses we had just suffered. I had just endured a series of intimate and devastating betrayals that led to the end of a ten year relationship. Mike had just lost his best friend to an abrupt and unexpected illness - John, dead at 42. We were both bewildered and raw. That was December 2007.

It was late summer 2007 when I hastily decided to take my first solo international trip somewhere, anywhere, someplace no one knew me and I could just be, floating, unattached, where things were different and I had to pay attention to something other than my empty house and the unrelenting ache in my guts....someplace where I didn't belong and nothing was expected of me and every interaction would demand my attention and be fresh and untainted. I needed to get the fuck out of town, out of country, out of my world.

My first solo trip was to Cabo where I intentionally booked two nights in a modest hotel frequented by Mexicans, not gringos. My trip was a week long and I figured I'd spend a couple days in Cabo and then decide where to go and what to do. I hated Cabo as it was packed with idiot drunk gringos who under-appreciated the Mexicans who served them. I spent one day fishing for dorado on a rough Pacific Ocean catching two fish which I brought to a sweet palapa restaurant where the kindly waiters had the cooks make three preparations for me to try. I gave the rest of the fish to the waiters who were my only friends in that town, a pattern that has often repeated itself in Mexico.

The second day I rented a car and headed north along the Pacific Coast in the August heat listening to Mexican music and concentrating on keeping the car on the narrow roads that link the towns of southern Baja. I spent a night in Todos Santos and then headed east to La Paz. I stayed in a gorgeous historical building, el Angel Azul, a B&B run by a savvy world travelled Swiss woman named Ester. We immediately liked each other. After an incredibly successful day of fishing on the Sea of Cortes in an 18' panga with my Mexican guide, she and I took my fish to the best restaurant in town where Jesus, a friendly chef from Tijuana, made that fish delicious. I gave the rest of my fish to hard working locals, people Ester knew. I so loved La Paz with it's sweet Mexican waiters, shop-keeps, chefs and guides, that I extended my trip another week. Ester and I sipped Don Julio in the courtyard and discussed her travels, politics, and local gossip. I snorkeled with sea lions, kayaked, ate ceviche on the beach, met friendly vacationing Italians, and walked the malecon in the evenings watching families eating ice cream cones and listening to the bands that played a mix of American cover songs and Mexican pop.

August days in southern Baja are oppressively hot and I was forced to move slowly, conservatively. I drank glasses of ice water with limes, ate chips and guacamole and obsessively wrote in my journal. My interactions with the locals could only deal with the immediate, the tangible, those things that could be explicitly named, mimed or pointed to...the abstract and conceptual were eclipsed by the language barrier and I was forced to live in the moment. It was perfect and when I returned to the States something had shifted. It was not an end, not a cure for the ache in my guts, the grief, the disorientation, but I had rounded some corner, was looking at some new fuzzy horizon. And I knew after years of traveling in Mexico, I needed to learn some Spanish. Within a month of returning from Baja I had booked five and half weeks in Guatemala over Christmas and New Years. I registered for Spanish classes and arranged boarding with a local family. I had no idea what to expect but I was going to really get the fuck out of town, out of country, out of my world. I was headed to Guate.

My first time in Antigua, Guatemala, I studied Spanish four hours a day, an exhausting enterprise in one's 40s. I ate my meals with my Spanish speaking and very religious host family. I walked the cobblestone streets alone, sat in cafes reading and studying my Spanish, ordering meals with my nascent skills. I sat in internet cafes and wrote emails and blogged at the request of my family. I read voraciously and slept in a closet room in the most uncomfortable twin bed. On the weekends I travelled alone, Lake Atitlan, Tikal, Rio Dulce, Chi Chi, Copan. I was often nervous, lonely...but I was present, engaged, everything was new and immediate. I watched no TV, read no newspapers, listened only to the music available in the clubs and cafes. I talked to all kinds of people stumbling through Spanglish conversations with smiling locals, swapping stories with traveling Europeans and gringos. Save for the snotty young Europeans in my Spanish school, most folks were friendly and engaging, especially the locals.

Although people were friendly to me as I travelled alone around Guatemala on the weekends, in Antigua I was starting to get a bit lonely. I was older than most of my fellow students and they were largely indifferent and often unfriendly to me. Then one day I walked into Dyslexia Books on Avenida Primera and met Carlos, a middle-aged sweetheart of a man, a lawyer from Tennessee who tends the store in the time when he's not working for local NGOs. We immediately hit it off talking books and politics and Guatemala. I asked Carlos if I could buy him drinks for the night at the adjacent bar, Cafe No Se. He accepted and we settled into what would become a liqueur soaked evening of disclosure and waxing philosophic. It was that night that I met Mike, shook his hand over the bar he was tending. Mike and I talked and ranted about US politics and who knows what and after a couple of hours I knew he was to be my friend, that I already loved him. It was a strange but comforting feeling.

Mike and I spent the next night in No Se sipping drinks and sharing our stories. He spoke candidly of John's death, his heartbreak and despair, the disorientation that comes with grieving a profound loss. I shared my stories, the betrayal and loss, the shock and disillusionment of the past year. I also talked about my first experience wrestling with profound grief, the loss of my mother when I was young. We acknowledged that despite its inevitability, death and the resulting grief are not something one can really prepare for. We drank. We talked. We didn’t try to fix each other. We didn’t pretend it was less painful than it was. We didn’t get uncomfortable and change the subject. We didn’t panic and fill the silences. We simply bore witness to each other. Thousands of miles from our lives and histories in the States, we sat together and told the heartbreaking truth in a dimly lit dive bar. And we both knew a profound friendship was being cemented.

One day walking through town Mike asked me what I was doing for Christmas. I had no plans and he insisted that I come to his house for dinner on Christmas Eve. I spent the evening with an incredibly eclectic group of folks, expats and Guatemalans, do-gooders and vagabonds, radicals and musicians. We told stories and shared poetry and drank rum and sang songs till the sun came up. It was beautiful. My heart was still broken but it was also filled with love....that ineffable paradox that is the human condition, the way the human heart can hold both profound pain and expansive love...the bittersweet feeling of love's return when you have suffered its absence.

I am in Guatemala for the fourth time since that first holiday season, my fourth Christmas and New Years with Mike and the various souls who land in this quirky little town this time of year. There are the regulars, the expats and Guatemalans who call this place a permanent home, and those who come back just for the holidays, and those just passing through, this place a stop on some journey. Each year we gather around a long table, eat and drink and sing songs till the sun comes up, giving thanks for the love and friendship. And each year Mike and I have grown stronger, let go of some more of the pain of those particular losses and cultivated a little more hope and peace. And we have noted that our friendship is rooted in our willingness to tell the truth when we were crushed and raw. We both knew that to tell those truths is an expression of great strength, the strength of letting go of pretense.

The other night Mike and I got into a little fight, something stupid and fueled by a little too much tequila. We immediately made up but the tiff threw me for a bit of a loop. Mike and I don't fight. Our relationship is not filled with's elastic and spacious, never demanding. And then a wise friend offered, shrugging off my concern, that to fight is a rite of passage of sorts. To make an ass out of oneself, to be petty or ridiculous and then be quickly and sincerely forgiven, to experience that is to know more the truth of the friendship. I realized she was right and I let it all go. As Mike said to me the next day, "all I know is that I love you and that's all that matters and this is just a little blip and it means nothing." He's half right. It once again means letting go of pretense, the pretense that we will always be our best selves. We will not. And to admit that is also an expression of strength.

Mike recently sent me a draft of an essay he wrote exploring the fragility of life, asserting that: "…occasionally Ye Olde Cycle of Birth and Death grabs us by the lapels and demands our full and undivided. And it does so to shake the comfort out of our heads and remind us that, as fast as gravity, conception or murder, entropy can send your whole world ass over tea-kettle."

I think Mike is a passionate and talented writer. And as his friend, I know some of the back-story that fuels this particular languaging. I know that in the past year he helped victims of the eruption of the volcano Pacaya, that he was one of the volunteers who helped dig people from the mudslides that Agatha's rains caused in Ciudad Vieja. I know that he returned to the states for the funeral of a friend who was murdered by her husband. And I know an ex lover recently gave birth to another man's baby. After reviewing his draft I wrote to him in an email: "One has to acknowledge all that vulnerability and tenderness in order to live out loud, to love big and generously despite the fact that your heart will be broken, again and again. And then again. People will die, people will betray you, volcanoes will erupt and floods will sweep away villages. No one escapes heartbreak. Life is a heartbreaking enterprise, inherently. Denying that leads to severe and potentially irreparable pussy-ness."

One of the reasons I love Mike so much is he acknowledges, front and center, without pretense, without a common self delusion, that life is heartbreaking. He names the pain, calls out the insecurities, stares them down, doesn't let them paralyze him. He does all that and then chooses to love generously again and again. In this way he inspires me and I think all those who know him and read his work.

It's good to be back in Guatemala, with Mike and all the dear friends I have made here. Unlike that first Christmas, I am stronger, happier, healed. I am forever thankful for those early conversations with Mike in that beautiful dive bar on Avenida Primera, because without them and the friendship they birthed, I would not be here today, a better woman, a better friend, a better person.