Friday, December 4, 2009

Environmental Clean-Up with Chain Saws and Birthday Cakes

I wrote the following after reading the article "The General Electric Superfraud: Why the Hudson River Will Never Run Clean" in Harper's Magazine, December 2009 (link provided below). It´s a depressing account of the environmental cluster-fuck that is the Hudson River, a place with a long history of abuse and exploitation, ignorant and intentional. The article highlights, in part, the struggles with elemental questions in contemporary environmental clean-up. These questions include: how clean is clean? what is an acceptable risk? how much confidence is there in the current characterization of the contamination?

I have, since 1995, moved in the world of environmental science, clean-up, regulation, Superfund, the National Priorities List (NPL) and the like, serving as a mediator/facilitator and public involvement specialist. I have been privy to, and often facilitated, discussions on "how clean is clean?" - technological and financial feasibility, and deciding on what is an acceptable human health risk based on human health risk assessments. Ultimately, the experience I have has left me with hoards more questions than answers, and frankly, an ever waning confidence in much of modern environmental science. And this is not primarily because of the competency or good intentions of regulators and scientists, but rather the complexity of the problems and the limitations of our current technology and understanding of things.

How Clean is Clean? What risk is acceptable?
These questions are fundamental in deciding how and what to what degree a contaminated site will be cleaned. At first glance, these questions may seem like a no-brainers. How clean is clean? Totally fucking clean is clean, right? What is an acceptable risk to human health and the environment? Zero risk is the knee-jerk-answer. But things aren´t quite that simple. There are many confounding factors in considering the question of "how clean is clean?" First, there are technological limits for detecting many constituents deemed harmful to human health and the environment. Contemporary technologies all have a threshold of detection ability, but depending on the particular chemical constituent, this may be above or below levels believed to pose a significant risk to humans and/or the environment. There are some constituents, such as radioactive isotopes, that are considered by many scientists to present a no-threshold risk. In other words, there is no exposure that is considered safe to humans, all exposure´is thought to increase, to some degree, an individuals cancer risk. Yet our technology is limited in it´s ability to thoroughly detect the presence of many such constituents. So how much dirt should be dug up and hauled to a landfill? The answers to these questions can have huge financial impacts...and in the case of NPL sites, can mean 100s of millions of taxpayer dollars....a resource that is finite. These questions are far from easy to answer.

The Cosmos Are Naturally Dirty and We Helped Fuck it Up Some More
Another confounding factor is that there are many naturally occurring substances, such as radioactivity, arsenic, etc., that pose a risk to human health and the environment. In the case of radioactivity, there is also ubiquitous man-made radioactive material resulting, mainly, from decades of above ground nuclear testing. Other naturally occurring substances have been mined, concentrated, and accumulated by humans and now pose a risks. Scientists and regulators are challenged to determined what is naturally occurring and what has been cause by human actions. Suddenly, the question of "how clean is clean?" becomes much more complicated. And concomitantly, the question of what is an acceptable risk becomes, although uncomfortable to most, very relevant. I feel for the regulators and scientists that must answer these never thoroughly answerable questions.

Human Health Risk Assessments (for Cancer)
I have casually in the above paragraphs tossed out references to "human health risk assessment" with no explanation which is misleading as there is nothing casual about them. HHRAs are a primary tool in deciding "how clean is clean'", and yet, they are quite limited in many ways. HHRA are probabilistic models, statistical models based on existing information about known carcinogens and they include very conservative assumptions about exposure pathways built into the models. These models are not predictive, a very important point. They simply provide relative information on the risk based on model parameters. They do not predict whether people will develop cancer. The distinction is often difficult for people to understand and thus HHRA results can scare the shit outta people. Perfectly clear, right? I´ll try to break it down a little more.

Clear as Mud
Some contaminants have a lot of data about their carcinogenic affects on humans while others do not, many have only data from exposure to rats or other similar lab animals. The data going into the HHRA can vary greatly in it´s robustness depending on the contaminant. The second key factor that is plugged into the model is the assumed land use of the contaminated site. If it is residential use, the models make conservative assumptions such as a person will live on the site for thirty years, spend the majority of their time at home, eat vegetables grown in their yard, their children will incidentally ingest X pounds of soil a year, and so on. The logic is to assume the worst case exposure to off-set some of the uncertainty in the modeling. For industrial and recreational land use scenarios, the assumptions are less conservative, such as assuming people will not be on the site day and night and children will not be playing in the dirt, etc. Then a calculation is made and a cancer risk number is popped out. Remember, some contaminants are naturally occurring and pose a risk at any exposure. And there is a baseline cancer risk for all human beings just by being alive in this world.

All clear now? Ok, here´s another confounding issue in determining the risk at a given location. How the contamination is characterized and quantified impacts the outcome of the HHRS. Does the modeler use a high concentration sample at a local sample site or a composite sample that more evenly distributes the risk? Is it fair to assume the modeled child will eat dirt from only the dirtiest location at the site? What if the contamination is extremely heterogeneous and contains locations with high concentrations and locations that are non-detect when sampled? And if scientists are dealing with a large site with multiple contaminants, do you parcel the areas and calculate the risk or combine the entire area into one risk assessment? These are not simple questions and they do not lend themselves to simple answers. The real bummer about these questions is that there seems to be no single right answer. Judgments have to be made, compromises are inevitable, and no one is sure what the ultimate affect of these decisions will be.

Chain Saws and Birthday Cakes
When I first started working in the environmental field I was eager to learn about everything as I was lost beyond belief in this complex world of science, regulations, and a new vocabulary that appeared to have no words, only acronyms. So one day I cornered a toxicologist, a woman with extensive experience in conducting HHRAs, and I asked her to explain it to me. She patiently went through the processes in layman's terms and answered my questions. After about an hour, I cocked my head and said, "well, I gotta tell ya, this all does not sound very certain or clear cut." My colleague candidly responded with, "It isn´t. Ít´s very crude. I liken doing a HHRA to cutting a birthday cake with a chain saw....but it´s the best tool we have." I have quoted this clever woman many times through the years...her candor and use of metaphor made a huge impression on me.

So how do people answer these fundamental questions regarding environmental cleanup? Well, some of the answer lies in regulatory standards that have been developed through protracted and complicated processes and then established either through regulation or precedent. There are some benchmarks for decision makers to use, but they are far from comprehensive. Even with these benchmarks and regulations, the kinds of questions I have described above are often still extremely difficult to answer. They are fraught with all the social factors one could conceive of....understandable fear from those living on or near a site, degrees of financial impact/feasibility, political posturing and advocating, and the sometimes talented and informed (and sometimes not) scrutiny of environmental advocates and watchdog groups. The decision making often involves all of these stakeholders participating in, and/or contributing to, the decision making process (and I haven´t even touched on the fact that there is often a great diversity of opinion on these issues within the scientific community). And this is where I join the fray.

Born to Help....So I Like to Think
In my work I try my hardest to help these various stakeholders have productive yet difficult conversations and make the difficult decisions. My job is not to make any technical or policy decisions and I never opine on content, only process. I have often explained my job as such, "I help other people make difficult decisions." For most of my projects, past and present, these conversations are almost always messy, often unwieldy, and inherently complicated. But the folks at the table show up, start sorting through the complexity and slowly move through the various options and required decisions. Some sites are forever starting and stopping and re-evaluating, some blow-up politically, and others are more straightforward. Almost all major environmental clean-ups take decades.

Am I a Big Wimp? Maybe.
I have often considered that maybe I am a big wimp in that I have chosen a profession that doesn´t put me in the decision-making seat. I don´t advocate for anything but a productive process and moving towards a stated goal of consensus among some or all parties. But I love my work. I absolutely get off on helping these folks make progress on issues and questions that can´t and should not be ignored. And I hope to do it in such a way that at the end of the day they can all shake hands and go home and not kick their dogs and yell at their kids because their work is so frustrating. I think I succeed in many instances and I am certain I fail in some.

A few years ago an article in the respected journal Conflict Resolution Quarterly (CRQ) did an analysis and literature review of research on multi-stakeholder decision making processes and the efficacy of ADR professionals like myself who provide facilitation and mediation support. The upshot was that there is no way to conclusively assess whether the contributions of folks like me actually help to produce better outcomes. The question, they concluded, is currently unanswerable as there are too many variables and the processes are too complex....they likened it to the weather. The only data on the efficacy of facilitators/mediators in complex multi-stakeholder processes are from stakeholder´s self-reporting. This is an inherently problematic method as it lacks any controlled reference.

In the early days of my career I privately set a goal to at least do more good than harm in my contributions to a proceeding or meeting. I have always felt that I achieved that by whatever margin...and I think, overall, my ratio has improved through the years. But I got nothing to back that up...except, generally, more satisfied stakeholders than pissed off ones. But trust me, there are ALWAYS pissed off stakeholders.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In Guatemala....Again!

For some reason, I like to keep my sloppy ramblings while traveling seperate from my sloppy ramblings while at home. Those curious about my travels and exploits in Central America can read about them at-

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Giving Thanks in 2009 and Remembering Donna Clare Rainwater

“I am thankful for my family,” a “no dah” assertion made often in this US holiday season. An assertion that sometimes rings cliché, hackneyed, trite. So I offer the following as an antidote to that vulnerability.

November 30, 1989, Donna Clare Rainwater shuffled off this mortal coil, checked out one week after thanksgiving, five days after her 52nd birthday, 18 years after giving birth to my youngest sister Marcy, and approximately 3 hours after I last saw her alive. It was a dramatic day, a tumultuous time, a reckoning of sorts. My mother’s death was a defining event forcing five young Rainwater’s (me and my four siblings) to confront some heavy shit about mortality, family, our emotionally stunted and clueless father, and each other. It was the end of my mother’s life on earth, the end of a certain innocence and familial definition. My mother was the glue that, in many ways, had kept us together. But when she died, something happened as a result, a rebirth of sorts, something sublimely good. Her death helped solidify the bonds between the five of us. I offer the most superficial explanation.

If I had a nickel for every time someone has said to me, with disbelief in their voice, “it’s amazing how close you all are” I would be a rich woman. Seriously. People are almost always amazed when I share that my best friends are my siblings. Many cite the turbulent relationships in their own families, explaining that they love their brothers or sisters but they are not close. I nod, smile, and shrug. Closeness with my sibs is all I know. They are my family. In every good definition of the word.

Juls is my Irish twin, which means she was born 11 months after I arrived. I was a crying, colicky first born to an exhausted young Donna, a practicing Irish Catholic who was boinking my dad without birth control 2 months after giving birth (she was also, by all apparent evidence, very fertile). I have zero recollection of my life before Juls…so we are in effect, twins, Irish or otherwise.

Juls and I are, at first glance, night and day. She has always been a skinny, bookish, relatively shy soul with a sober intellect and an aptitude for math and the analytical. I am not skinny, not shy, not bookish, and I failed college algebra, twice. In our youth Juls preferred reading her books and holing-up in her room alone singing along to Karen Carpenter albums while using her hairbrush as a microphone proxy. She followed the rules, got As, was in MGM, kept a low profile and saved her rebellions for later and was then much more sophisticated and surreptitious in their implementation. This all stood in stark contrast to my kinetic, brash, rebellious ways and grossly unsatisfactory grades. We were opposites. And though this might seem an equation for discord, that was not the case. We have ALWAYS been friends. In fact I call Juls my soul mate. She has been my confidant, counselor, supporter, my constant companion on this emotional, intellectual and spiritual journey through life. She and I have such a cultivated common language that previous considerations, contemplations, and histories need only the slightest allusion to be conjured. No one knows me better than Julie Ann Rainwater. And still, she always sees the good in me. That, to me, is family.

Then came the twins, James Clark and Lauri Jean, two little 3+ pounders born six weeks early. Suddenly there were four. In some ways these two were an analog to Juls and I. Jimmy was loud and nutty, Laurs was sweet and hardworking, and Juls and I took them under our wings accordingly. I was rough and tumble with little Jimbo and Laurs and Juls focused on the proper coordination of their respective Barbie’s outfits. We all, for the most part, got along fabulously (saving for some dramatic fights between Jimmy and I).

Then came the sweet surprise, Marcy Jane, the youngest, the little jock of all jocks, the quiet grounded one with a tough exterior and a mushy heart. Marcy entertained us with her youthful antics and later was left to deal with things on her own while the four of us ventured out into the world. She has always had a wisdom beyond her years. And then there were five. Five little Rainwaters and it seems like only minutes passed and then we were all peers. And as we all got older, we ended up going to the same parties and drinking the same cheap kegger beer and eating SuperMex and going to the beach the morning after.

That fateful November in 1989 when our mom up and died, something began to happened, something new was cemented. Of course we all dealt with things in our own way…diving into our preferred flavors of distraction. But we also talked. We shared. We grilled our sister Marcy about the details of the day as she was with my mother when she had the heart attack. We went over and over in detail everyone’s experience of finding out, of going to the hospital, of getting the call. We pondered the unbelievable, the inconceivable, the impossibility of it all. We contemplated life without Donna and we did it openly and often. We cried together, drank together, sat through that Catholic mass funeral together, and together we ate the ten frozen lasagnas delivered by friends and neighbors. And a few weeks later, together we bore the pain of that first Christmas and New Years without the woman who had always made those days special for us all. We were, at that young age, forced to deal with something that most of our friends could not even conceive of…suddenly the value of our relationships to each other came into clearer focus, the fragility of life was no longer conceptual but the nasty fact of one less plate at the Christmas dinner table.

Through the years it has only gotten better, even with all the distractions and girlfriends and boyfriends and dramas. We have continued to become better friends, better siblings, better family to each other. When one of us has stumbled, the phone calls and conversations among the others have been filled with ideas for how to help, how to console, how to cheer up. If money was needed, money was collected. If a pep-talk was needed, four were given. If a ride, a plane ticket, or a birth coach were needed, all were arranged. Never has the response to a challenge been derision or harsh judgment. Not to my knowledge. Not ever. Every conversation, every strategy, every potential intervention has been fueled by caring, love and respect. We truly truly wish the best for each other. We truly are there for one another.

It’s been 20 years this November since our mother died. We are now all growed up and have added John, Ron and Jon and five youngin’s to the clan. And even though I am for the third year in a row skipping off to Central America for Christmas and New Years, I think I have only missed one family Thanksgiving dinner in the 20 years since my mother’s death. Most years we gather at Laur’s house where we laugh and laugh and drink and play stupid games and laugh some more. Our histories are so intermingled, our humor so relentless, our common language so present and enduring, our loyalty so proven again and again, there is no denying that we are, by every good definition, family. And so I say again, not only in this US holiday season, but every single day, I am thankful for my siblings, my best friends, my family.

And lastly, mom, wherever you are, thanks for having us, raising us, and instilling something good in us that has endured and is being passed to the next generation. This Thanksgiving there will be a plate set at the table in your honor. And we will speak of you to those youngin’s and partners who never got the chance to meet you. You will never be forgotten.


NOTE: My family has grown to include more than my siblings, John, Ron, and Jon, and the five new youngin's, but I have chosen to focus on my mom and bio-sibs here. I am also TRULY grateful, everyday, for my larger chosen family.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tales from the Bungalow: Jimmy's TV Goes on the Attack!

Jimmy and I have matching flat screen TVs, although mine is admittedly, a bit larger. Jimmy purchased his about 8 months ago and has been watching it with regularity ever since. The other night we were driving when Jimmy suddenly asked, "You know that little blue light on our TVs, does that bug you?" My response was what it so often is when Jimmy asks such questions, "What are you talking about?" Jimmy described the little blue light that is centered on the lower part of the TV below the screen. The light, when blue, indicates that the TV is on. Ok Jimmy. I know the light you're talking about.

Jimmy went on to explain that the light, when he finally noticed it after EIGHT MONTHS had passed, was driving him crazy. I looked at him astonished and noted that it was a very small light and that the one on my TV did not bother me one iota. I started ribbing him and laughing at him when he suddenly blurted out, "But it was lasering me! It was lasering me!" Apparently, this light, after 8 months of being ignored, took it upon itself to start torturing my brother (as he watched Ultimate Fighting) by "lasering" him in the eyes.

So distraught by this sudden "lasering" attack, my brother immediately began looking for ways to cover up the "laser" light and protect his assaulted eyes. He started with a post-it-note but explained that the "laser" light still shone through. So he went into the bathroom and got a band-aid to cover it up. Apparently a thin layer of gauze and rubber was enough to stop the "lasering" my poor brother had been suffering. Seriously. Every part of this story is absolutely true.

Monday, October 19, 2009

There ARE Seasons in California

I recently asked a very bright and observant woman, who has lived in many places in the USA, if she thinks there are distinct seasons in California. She paused thoughtfully, then responded with a 'yes" and a "why do you ask?" I explained that so many folks from places east and north of here do not think there is such a thing as seasons in the Golden State. She cleverly observed, "you don't need to be beaten over the head with it for it to be distinct." Touche! I am tired of my more eastern-and-northern-state living friends popping off about how California doesn't have any seasons. With all due respect, they, are wrong.

There are even places in California where a season will "beat you over the head" should you not be prepared. And sometimes, even then. If one January you chose to hang out on Donner Pass (see pic) in the Sierra Nevada, which boasts some of the heaviest snowfall in the US, you had better be prepared for some damn cold winter weather or you will end up loosing some digits to frostbite, or worse, dying of hypothermia (or starvation like the Donner party, the infamous tragedy of the mid-19th century that lent the pass it's current name). And if you were at that same locale on a sunny August day, you had better be lathered with sunscreen and have a water bottle in hand. There are great seasonal variations in temperature and precipitation in many parts of California. And as a young explorer, I learned this lesson, in part, the hard way.

An Early Lesson in Cold
Death Valley is an almost inconceivably expansive desert region boasting the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea-level, with the perennially snow capped 11,000 foot Telescope peak standing sentry to the west. It is a land of extremes with some of the hottest recorded summer temperatures in North America, a place where nighttime temperatures can plummet 35-40 degrees.

In my younger days I spent a fair amount of time exploring this region in 4X4 trucks and on motorcycles with stiff suspensions and torquey 2-stroke engines. One of my earliest trips to Death Valley started with a long day riding a motorcycle over mule trails and hoary mining roads followed by a few beers around a roaring campfire. Tuckered, at last I took my leave and snuggled into my cheap sleeping bag which I had spread out on a folding lawn chair inside my little A-frame tent. A Colman lantern hissed as I read a book on desert fauna and waited to get warm. It didn't happen.

The temperature continued to plummet as the night came on and I started to shiver, my teeth body trying to warm itself. I grabbed some more clothes and stuffed them into the bottom of my bag to warm them before wiggling into the sweatshirt, sweats and hoody while trying to keep the cold air out. It was a bandaid on a big cold wound. I spent a miserable night in hallucinogenic half sleep curled up in a fetal position. The temperature was below freezing and I was dreadfully unprepared. A month later I put my entire teenage fortune towards a North Face mummy bag with a 15 degree comfort rating. Skimping on a sleeping bag was not an option when winter camping in Death Valley. I was learning that all of California did not sport the relatively moderate temperatures of coastal SoCal. Check.

The Distortions of Living on the SoCal Coast
I grew up about ten miles inland from the coast in Southern California, a place that IS known for its Mediterranean climate with dry hot summers and mild, slightly rainy winters. The winters could bring some cooler temps, some morning frost on lawns and north facing windshields. But these bits of cold were short lived and the days were often sunny and mild. When I lived in SoCal I welcomed the rain and the snow it brought to the local mountains. "Winter," I remember thinking, "is cool...I like the rain." Well, when I lived in SoCal where the average annual rainfall is 13 inches and the average number of rainy days is 35, I DID enjoy the rain. In those small doses.

El Nino and the SAD Years
Fast forward to San Francisco, 1997-98, a winter when el Nino paid a visit. San Francisco typically has about 62 days of rain totaling about 22 inches annually. In 1997-98 we saw rain for 119 days totaling 47 inches. We got hammered. Our weather typically comes from the northern jet-stream which often hangs out over Alaska before spinning fronts towards our coast. But in 1997, there was a huge front from the south, the Pineapple express, which dumped a ton of warm water on the deep snow-packed Sierras. The result was that much of the "spring" run-off, which usually takes most of spring to occur, happened in a couple of days. The western Sierran rivers became raging torrents knocking down bridges, ripping out trees, demolishing houses, breaking levees and inundating subdivisions across the valley floor. This flood is often referenced as a benchmark....there's the drought of 1976-77 and the 50-100 year flood of 1997-98. This is the year that I realized, I need sun. And I need it regular like.

I was living in Ingleside, a neighborhood in western San Francisco, a place known for cold and fog. That winter people had calendars out, hanging in shops, office cubicles, the corner store, where they X'd each day that it rained, logging consecutive weeks of cold wet darkness without a peep from the sun. We would have a cloudy rainless day or two, and then more weeks of uninterrupted rain. After a month or so of no sun, I started to slump through the world, shoulders low and head down while riding Muni downtown, staring off into space during meetings, sleeping more than I needed. What the hell is wrong with me I pondered. Slowly I realized I need to see the fucking sun without three months passing!

I started reading up on SADs, seasonal affective disorder, the contemporary diagnosis for "the winter blues." Research shows that many inhabitants in northern countries/states experience varying degrees of depression associated with less seasonal light, when the sun's visits are shortened and the angle of the rays more oblique. And SAD rates tend to be higher in women and people of Irish decent...umm, guilty, on both counts. I'm a women with a fair amount of Irish blood. Bummer.

So, I got me a light. A full spectrum light box that I sat in front of for a couple of hours a day. It helped. I also made a concerted effort to sit in the sun for as long as possible when it made appearances in the winter. This too helped. But the Bay Area, even when not a particularly rainy year, can have a lot of gray days. And I didn't always get a lot of time soaking in the rays in the winter. And every year, come February, the cumulative affects were acute, I was a little nuts, stir crazy, blue, not particularly motivated, and generally a bit cranky. So I announced to my friends and family that it was hence forth necessary for me to have mid-winter "sun-trips." To the south I must go for a few days, before February, before I started picking up cutlery and saying "here's Johnny!"

Heading South for Sanity
Two years ago I took it all a little farther. I spent five weeks in Central America traveling all around Guatemala and into Honduras. By the time I got home I had been drenched in sun, tropical sun, higher altitude sun, walking around the streets of Antigua sun, and I did not get depressed one iota. In fact, when spring came and the rains abated (granted these past few years have been low water years) I actually craved some rain. I have found the cure, I thought. Spend December abroad, south, and avoid the winter blues. So I went back to Central America the next year and it worked again. It was like my SoCal days, where I appreciated the bit of winter instead of slumping through my life looking for a place to nap.

So Listen Here Folks!
Here by the coast we may not be hip-deep in the white stuff, huffing and puffing as we dig ourselves to the sidewalk or the car. And we may have a lot more spring, summer and fall, and it may blend a little more, be a little less defined than the winters you nor'easterners or mid-westerners face...and granted, in the Oakland hills most of the turning leaves of fall seem to be poison oak. But we have our seasons and to the trained eye they present their own subtle beauty. And every once in awhile the unbelievable happens.

One winter day in San Francisco I was walking down Ocean Avenue having just gotten off the K train. It was cold and raining and I walked with my head down, collar up, scarf pulled snug around my neck...and then it happened. I saw little white flakes falling gently onto the greasy sidewalk in front of me. They disappeared on impact so I blinked hard and focused, thinking I might be hallucinating. Then I looked up in astonishment. It was snowing on me! In San Francisco California! I walked dazed, head up, grinning as snow fell on my face and all around me. Ocean Avenue is 60 feet above sea level. The snow level got that low in coastal CA. Unbelievable! Of course none of the snow stuck, the flakes disappeared immediately upon impact with anything, including my jacket...but it was still fucking snowing in San Francisco! And this, I readily admit, DOES NOT happen very often. And no wellies or shovels needed.

I have lived in California most of my life and through the years I have driven in white-out blizzards in the San Bernardino Mountains and the Sierras. I have been trapped in a tent in teen-degree weather half way up Mount Whitney while hurricane force winds blew on the summit. I have baked in desert heat over 115 degrees Fahrenheit when my lungs felt like they might ignite. I have seen the destruction of small tornadoes touching down in Anaheim and I have hiked through snow in July on mountains over 10,000 feet high! I've watched this state burn in the summer and fall, and then slide into the sea in the winter rains. So back off folks. California does have distinct seasons. And in some places those seasons WILL beat you over the head. We are not all Pamela Anderson running around on the beach, boobs a flailing all winter long. I promise.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hilarious-ness Unbridled!

Jimmy would not let me post this on my facebook page but gave permission for me to post it here. It's a small sampling of the never ending amusement (and shamelessness) that is my brother.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Why I Think Nancy Pelosi is Right to be Afraid

Balbir Singh Sodhi, by all accounts, was a gentle, hard working man, a man who strove to embody the peace promoting values of his Sikh religion. Sodhi emigrated from India to Los Angeles in 1989 and spent years in LA and San Francisco working as a taxi driver, saving his money to invest in a future for his family. Eventually he was able to buy a gas station in Phoenix, Arizona. He was known as a generous man, letting the poorer kids buy candy for a discount and sharing what he could with the local homeless.

On September 15, 2001, a white, middle-aged man drove to Sodhi’s gas station and fired five shots into the innocent man’s body, the tumbling, flesh-ripping-hot-lead-slugs killed Sodhi dead at age 52. Why? Because he had brown skin. Because he wore a beard. Because he wore the turban of his Sikh religion. Because he was the all threatening brown-skinned other that so many ignorant and xenophobic Americans have been taught to fear. Sodhi’s death was the first confirmed racially motivated murder in the rash of hate crimes that swept the nation after the 9/11 attacks on the US.

Sodhi’s murderer is Frank Roque, a man with a history of schizophrenia and “hearing voices.” When he was handcuffed by police he repeatedly shouted, to some unknown audience, “I stand for America all the way.” I would agree with his assertion to the degree that I think he represents the worst in American culture, he is a symptom of the ignorant and reactionary segments of our society that perpetrate such irrational hate crimes. It could also be argued he is a victim of a society with inadequate mental health care and education and an irresponsible media.

Read more at:

So when Speaker Nancy Pelosi emotionally calls for a calming of the rhetoric, when she urges "I wish that we all again would curb our enthusiasm in some of the statements that are made, with the understanding that some of the ears this is falling on are not as balanced as the person making the statement might assume," she has good reason. She is not being alarmist. She watched the homophobic and reactionary politics in California in the late 1970s that lead to the assignations of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone. Dan White, the right-wing assassin, was mentally ill (and his attorney’s presented one of the most outlandish defenses in recent legal history, the “Twinkie” defense, claiming junk food and sugar had diminished his mental capacities). Speaker Pelosi has damn good reason to express concern.

My brother and I sat in our living room discussing the emergence of the right wing media machine in the recent decade and it’s current fomenting of insanity in the often southern, white, male, and uneducated populations of the US. I was forcefully complaining about the insane Glenn Beck and his bizarre 9/12 gathering in DC. Now, for the record, my brother’s politics pretty much line up with mine. He is a confident, educated, employed, straight, white male, a damn liberal guy and many times he has been by my side at gay rights marches and other progressive causes. But my brother expressed his disappointment in the left-media’s response in the form of MSNBCs Keith Olberman and the like, asserting that such a response, is in some form, stooping to the level of the idiots. He said that we shouldn’t be like them, we should not respond in kind to their ignorant vitriol.

I quickly noted that Keith Olberman has a BS from Cornell and MSNBCs Rachel Maddow is a Rhode Scholar with a PhD*. Glenn Beck, well, he is not a Rhode Scholar and dropped out of Yale before earning anything. My brother pointed to the popular critique of “liberals” as smug and Rachel’s rolling eyes and Kieth Olberman’s unbridled sarcasm as compelling evidence for such an indictment. I agreed, but countered that Kieth Olberman and Rachel Maddow are orders of magnitude more complex, informed, and rational in their analysis of current events and politics than is their Fox-News “counter-parts.” I understand their smugness, and at times, although not always, I enjoy their smugness, I find some relief in their sarcasm. Glenn Beck is pointing at the sky and screaming that it’s filled with flying cats! He is stupid. He is an idiot. He is the antithesis of the rational or intellectual and he has a national platform from which to spew his hateful nonsense. Rolling ones eyes at such nonsense seems within the realm of the appropriate.

All this talk with my brother got me to thinking about the differences in our experience of the current racist, reactionary insanity that has been making itself conspicuous during the national debate regarding health care reform. As my brother and I talked I realized I harbor a subterranean anxiety that does not burden him. When my brother saw those men with guns strapped to their hips, holding AR15s, he simply wrote it off as those wing-nuts in places other than the Bay Area. He would vote his conscience, give money to our side, and spare himself the pain of watching the idiots convene and shout their ignorance. Why was I so preoccupied with the nut-jobs and the Glenn Becks of the world spewing their hate-fomenting rhetoric on national TV?

I realized it is, in some part, because I fall into a category of conspicuous “other,” I am one that moves through the world knowing I have a certain kind of target on my chest should the haters be prompted to start shooting. I am an out, butch-dyke and you could figure this out very quickly with a short glance in my direction. I am conspicuously queer. Different. Other. In the eyes of many of those Glenn Beckers, I am an abomination against the laws of nature, a pedophile, a pervert, a predator, and a femmi-nazi (whatever that means!). There are people who think I should be imprisoned or, in some cases, killed because of my sexual/gender orientation. At the very least they think I should not enjoy the same constitutional rights as white, non-queer folks. And I do not mean to in any way fully equate my experience of homophobia with racism. I am white and enjoy the profound and unjustified privilege that comes with that biology. And at times, astonishingly, I pass as straight. But I still belong to a category of other that my brother does not.

I also live in Oakland, California, standing in the shadow of San Francisco, one of the great queer cities of the world, rubbing shoulders with the City of Berkeley, home to UC Berkeley and innumerable retired hippies. These three cities, the “holy-trinity” it is often called, the “bubble,” teeming with liberals, radicals, and incredible racial, ethnic, sexual, and social diversity. What do I have to fear in such a place?

Well, ask a fag who lived in the gay Mecca of Berlin as the Nazi’s spread across Europe. Or the Rwandan Tutsis who were one moment sipping lemonade in the afternoon shade and the next moment running from their machete-wielding neighbors and “friends” intent on slaughtering them, a genocide largely fomented by right-wing-racist radio broadcasts filled with outlandish lies presented as fact. Too extreme you think? Well let’s ask any brown-skinned person living in the Bay Area after the attacks of 9/11. Many people were dragged from their cars and beaten, their store fronts were shot-up and their cars and homes vandalized. Right here in the bubble. Right here, a few short years ago, in the holy-trinity, in the great melding pot of contemporary Northern California.

For months after the 9/11 attacks I would see cars on the freeways with flags flying from the antenna or taped into the rear window for all to see. When I pulled up to these red-white-and-blue decorated cars it was invariably a brown skinned person at the wheel. Fearing for their safety, brown skinned people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds defensively and conspicuously displayed the US flag, symbolically shouting, “I am not a terrorist! Please do not attack me or my car!”

In California, last November the historic ballet of 2008 also contained Proposition 8, that bigoted attack on same-sex marriage, a constitutional right that had recently been supported by a California Supreme Court decision. But in November, Prop 8 passed, again making same-sex marriage illegal. And when Prop 8 was legally challenged, the California Supreme Court, for reasons that escape my understanding, upheld Prop 8. Same sex marriage is again, illegal, unless you were one of the 18,000 gay couples that got hitched during the few months it was legal. Bizarre.

In the last two months leading up to the 2008 election, Prop 8 supporters and opponents clashed all around the state. Sign wielding demonstrators on both sides shouted at each other across crowded intersections. Synagogues, churches, and temples were desecrated on both sides of the issue. While holding signs on street corners I was screamed at, condemned to hell, and flipped off. I heard several stories, first hand, of pro gay marriage demonstrators and workers being spit on and beaten, and one incredible story where a woman on foot was first beaten and then almost run down by a car driven by a Prop 8 supporter. There was violence. In the bubble and the cities that fringe the Bay Area’s holy-trinity.

I do not walk the streets in fear as my privilege allows me a certain confidence. I am very open about my sexuality and I wear my butchness like a uniform. I committed to keeping my “No On Prop 8” signs in my yard until justice prevails. I have been blessed with an education and I know there are innumerable examples of mass bigotry and violence in the world and throughout all of history - the in-groups preying on and scape-goating the out-groups in often overt and horrific ways. And, obviously, racism, homophobia, and other forms of virulent bigotry are alive and well in the US. I know the roots of these problems are deep, complex, tangled in class, economics, race, politics, and a post fairness-doctrine era of 24-hour news cycles and the inconceivable immediacy and agility of internet technology. But I watch the news, see the men with their guns, the people holding blatantly homophobic, xenophobic, racist signs and I ponder the histories I have alluded to here. Where is the tipping point? Are we getting closer to one?

I am an optimist, an idealist, I believe in possibilities, in a prevailing goodness in the universe. My chosen profession is conflict resolution, mediation. I help people have difficult conversations in highly charged situations. But this shit, well, it’s eroded a little of my optimism. It’s got me a little worried….about the safety of my neighbors, my fellow Americans, and my president. And I am not sure what to do.

* I do not believe that a formal education is the only way one can become educated. Nor do I believe that an Ivy League education is inherently superior to other paths. But I have lazily referenced Rachel's and Kieth's education to assert that I think Glenn Beck is NOT an educated least by any definition I would employ. So pardon my laziness, but hey, this is just a blog with 9.3 (occasional) readers!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Confession and An Update on the Ice-Maker Drama

The Confession
(References entry from July 6, 2009)
I am being compelled to write this, compelled by my youngest sister Marcy. Marcy is an ethical woman, a teacher of young children, a lover of cats and dogs, a loyal sibling, a talented softball player who never cheats.

One evening we were sitting at her kitchen table making small talk. She had just read my blog piece about our brother Jimmy being tortured by the sound of the ice-maker in our new fridge. We laughed and made affectionate fun of our sensitive brother.

Then I paused, looked seriously at my kid-sis, and said, "You know Marcy, the funny thing is, since I wrote that piece I now hear the sounds of the ice-maker all the time and they are loud. I think it might be some sort of divine retribution for heckling Jimmy."

She wasted no time in admonishing me, insisting that I confess this fact on my blog. "You have to write that," she said. Well, when my child-teaching, cat-loving, ethical sister tells me I gotta, well, I gotta. So there you have it. My confession.

The Update
Now for a little trivial update on this issue. The other day I used all the ice in the tray to fill a small cooler for a day on the boat. The next day I opened the freezer drawer to get some ice for a drink. There was no ice. Not a single cube. I was perplexed. I then opened the upper doors to look at the control panel inside the fridge. Sure enough, there it was, a button for turning OFF the ice-maker. Jimmy had found the answer to his prayers.

I turned it back on.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Mer's One (Run-on) Sentence Movie Reviews

The Hurt Locker
Untidy, graphic, austere...instead of preaching a simplistic morality this film demonstrates the disturbing complexities and immediacy of modern US soldiering. Grade: A

Away We Go
Self-conscious and affected at times, but damn that guy is cute, sweet, and bloody hilarious...all-in-all the film is a delight with an awesome Alexi Murdoch soundtrack. B+

The Shrink
Absolutely ridiculous, a really bad farce in denial, but you get to watch Kevin Spacey which is nice. Grade: D-

Romantic, stifling, tragic, what one might expect from a Collete story...pretty and entertaining but ultimately forgettable. Grade: B-

Wrong in almost every way (the interviews with Hollywood dingbats were depressingly hilarious) and I don't understand how Sacha Baron Cohen was not killed or beaten to a bloody pulp while making this movie...specifically while wearing his campy-hot-pants-Hasidic costume being chased through the streets of Jerusalem by pissed off Jews, or at the Jerry Springer-like talk show with a largely black audience where he introduces his adopted black baby who he named OJ; I understand the irony at times, but geez!. Grade: D+

500 Days of Summer
Landed on really liking this one even though I am embarrassed to admit it...quirky and fresh with an over-the-top dance number - calls to mind the lyrics "every beginning comes from some other beginning's end." Grade: B

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sharks, Sharks, Sharks and Other Scary Things in the Sea

Shark Week!
Every summer I make the dubious decision to watch Discovery Channel’s notorious documentary marathon chronicling the lives, eating habits, and often enigmatic behavior of the class of fish called selachimorpha…more commonly known as "sharks." I watch as swimmers and surfers and snorkelers recount their terrifying limb-losing encounters with these toothy beasts. I watch as researchers intentionally encounter the biggest and baddest sharks using cages and sometimes, amazingly, not using cages. I watch as skilled and brave (or retarded?) men and women free-dive with tigers and great whites and makos…holding cameras and sticks. Sticks. I am not kidding. Some guys just hold a stick and prod the enormous beasts as they swim by. I am totally seduced and often unnerved as I sit on land, on my couch, in the relative safety of my home, watching intently and waiting for the next gush of on-screen blood.

There are about 340 known species of sharks and most of them are not dangerous to human beings, and yet, the very word “shark” can increase the pulse rate of anyone who ventures into the sea or even dreams of doing so. And for good reason. Although most sharks are benign to us humans (and the odds of being attacked are minuscule), the one’s that are dangerous earn their reputation with dramatic flare.

I grew up in Southern California, North Orange County, a place with wide sandy beaches, relatively warm sea water, sunny days, and an entrenched and growing surf culture. I grew up in the water, surfing, swimming, body-surfing, and laying on the beach studying the waves. When I was a little kid I rode the county bus to the beach (25¢ each way) with a boogie board under my arm and wearing a towel-stuffed backpack. It’s what we did in the summer. As I got older, we added beer and teenage self-consciousness…but in the summer, to the shore we went, without fail. And there I still go every summer, without fail, to ride my beat up old longboard on the small crumbly summer waves of Seal Beach or to sport my fins and bodysurf in the beach break at Scotchman’s Cove. In all my years, and I am “middle-aged” now (so that’s a lot of years), I have never heard of great white sharks near these beaches. I have heard stories of encounters near Catalina Island, 26 miles west of the mainland. But not near Orange County Beaches…not until recently.

They’re Here!
It started a couple years ago when a colleague (a surfer) mentioned something about two great whites that were “hanging out” at San Onofre Beach. Excuse me?! I was stunned and begged her to tell me it wasn’t so. It was so. Witnessed by many surfers she had talked to personally. And, I soon discovered, it was being reported in the papers and on the TV news. Not in SoCal! Not near “my” beaches! Yikes.

I currently live in Northern California, in what is commonly referred to as the “red triangle,” an area roughly marked by Point Reyes to the north of San Francisco, Monterey Bay to the south, and out to the austere group of rocks known as the Farralon Islands. The Farralon Islands serve as a base for shark researchers who suffer the harsh conditions offshore so they can observe and study the habits of great whites. This area has long been referred to as the red triangle because of the number of great white shark attacks on humans. According to wikipedia, this area marks 37% of recorded great white shark attacks on humans in the USA, and 11% worldwide. I don’t surf in the red triangle. The waters are cold, often rough, and home to the carcharodon carcharias, the great white shark. No thanks.

I do, however, sail these waters and I have to admit that when I venture out under the Golden Gate, into the red triangle, I think about the potential consequences of my little boat sinking. Although hypothermia would surely be the death of me, the thought of being eaten by a shark is much more dramatic and horrifying.

So you see, sharks and the thought of sharks, have always been in my life in a relatively immediate way, a "just under the surface" sorta way. And all this shark week shite got me to thinking about my own handful of actual and would-be shark encounters. Yes, I have had a few, although never was I in danger, as far as I can tell. But each encounter had it’s own thrill.

The Early Years

My first encounter with a living shark occurred when I was a kid walking along Bolsa Chica Beach one evening after a day of swimming in the waves. The sun was just below the horizon and I walked up to a fisherman who was casting into the surf and standing next to a 5 gallon bucket. Always intrigued by the sport, I looked into the bucket to see what the angler might have dragged from the sea. And there it was. A shark! It was about 16-18 inches long, grayish blue, and very much alive. I stood there, my young self, contemplating the fact that I had spent the day swimming in the water from which this man had just reeled in a shark. I wondered “who” else was out there and had been swimming next to my adolescent legs and torso all day! And even more alarming, where was this little guy’s mother?! Rational or not, these were the post-Jaws (the movie) thoughts of a SoCal girl who was obsessed with swimming in the ocean. In the years that followed I had other encounters with dead sand-sharks washed up on shore and other fisherman casting into the Jetty at Seal Beach or off the local piers and reeling in a variety of small sharks and rays that I inspected as I passed by.

Missing the Big One
The biggest shark I almost saw was the one that got away in the Caribbean last year. I was diving off the coast of Utila, Honduras, a place known for whale sharks, those plankton eating gentle giants. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea growing up to 40 feet long and weighing as much as 14 tons (see pic with snorkeler)! We had just finished an afternoon dive when our captain received a call on the VHF that a whale shark had been spotted offshore in the deeper waters they prefer. We tossed our mooring line and the captain throttled down as we all held onto the boat hoping we would get a glimpse of one of these generally shy animals. When we reached the area where the whale shark had been spotted we were instructed to don our snorkel gear (SCUBA bubbles can scare the fish away) and sit at the rear of the boat ready to slip quietly into the water. We crouched and waited, breathing in diesel exhaust, hearts pounding in anticipation of swimming with the giant fish. But after an hour of looking the crew concluded the giant fish had apparently taken a dive, literally. Bummer. A big tease. So lets head to the shark capital of the world!

The Big Bite
It was a hot sunny day on the windward islands of the Bahamas, a place known as the shark capital of the world because of the diversity and numbers of sharks found in these tropical reef-strewn waters. My friend John and I were fishing in about 60 feet of water a mile and a half offshore of Elbow Cay, a small cay east of Abaco Island. There was a moderate swell that gently rolled under the 19 foot center-console fishing boat that I had rented to explore and fish the islands. Sweating under the tropical mid-day sun, we cut and threaded bits of squid onto our hooks, weighted the lines, tossed the tackle overboard and fed it to the bottom, and then waited. Within minutes John yelled “fish-on” and started reeling. “It’s pretty big” he added as we both went to the edge of the boat to see what he had hooked. We could see the fish coming up and just as it broke the water a large set of shark jaws rolled over and chomped the fish off the line. Stunned, John and I littered the air with expletives as he pulled what was left of the fish onto the boat. He had caught a large trigger fish and all that remained was a bit of the head and a few straggly remnants of the entrails…all in the very distinct shape of a shark jaw. Fuck an A! We were thrilled and pumped!

Looking through my polarized sunglasses, I immediately started studying the water around the boat. Grey shadows everywhere. Very large gray shadows swimming under the boat….5, 6, maybe 8 foot long shadows criss-crossing under the boat. I turned to my fishing buddy, “John the most important rule today, stay on the boat!” I wasn’t kidding. As we bobbed in the Atlantic swell I suddenly felt quite small and vulnerable. We were surrounded by sharks. Then my rod bent. Fish on. I started reeling but the fish was gone in seconds. The shark took the hook and all this time. We tried a few more times, getting hits quickly and just as quickly losing our catch to the gray beasts below. We were no longer fishing, we were feeding the sharks. We cranked the boat and headed closer to shore into a shallow cut between two cays. We fished the rest of the afternoon, catching enough porgy and grunts to feed the whole family. Although our offshore fishing left us with only a part of a fish head, we had logged an experience that few folks can claim and one neither of us would ever forget. A close encounter with a hungry shark!

The Sandbar
The next day we anchored the boat on a shallow but sprawling sandbar know as Tahiti Beach. We waded through waist deep crystal clear water, walking on white coral sand 200 feet from shore. We gabbed about this and that when suddenly a three foot long baby lemon shark cruised slowly by us…maybe two feet away from where we were standing. It all happened so quickly that John and I just stood there and watched it gracefully swim by. Hello. There was nothing else around and in the still tropical water, the view of this gorgeous fish was clearer than a National Geographic photograph. Cool. Very cool. But I did wonder where it’s momma was. Or it’s brothers and sisters. Time to head back to the boat!

The Reef
The next day we motored out to an underwater preserve in a large cut between the islands. A heavy swell was rolling in unabated from the Atlantic and the afternoon sea breeze added some chop to the seas. We tied our boat to one of the park mooring buoys, donned our snorkel gear and rolled off the boat into the surging water. In about 25 feet of water we swam over the sprawling reef teeming with fishes…and among them several species of small sharks, only inches or a foot long. In a small patch of sand among the coral, a five foot nurse shark sat almost motionless on the bottom. We stalled, moving our fins just enough to fight the surge and keep us over the shark while we studied her. Who knows for how long? Damn. Shark capital indeed.

The Hunt
John and I also spent hours snorkeling on the sprawling reef off the beach in front of our rented house on Elbow Cay. We attempted fishing with a Hawaiian sling, a spear with a bungy tied to the end and loaded by stretching the bungy and grabbing the spear (see pic). To shoot you simply aim and let go of the spear while holding the bungy, like a giant rubber band the bungy shoots the spear towards the target. We spent hours stalking giant groupers that knew exactly the range of our spear and stayed just beyond it. They seemed to laugh at us as they moved with the grace of a bullfighter avoiding a goring…I am sure if they could speak English we would have heard an incorrigible ”are you fucking kidding me? Amateurs!.” We tried hitting snappers, grunts, porgy…miss miss and miss again. We took turns, snorkeling in compliment, sling holder always in front, the other moving to stay behind the hunter (we did not want to catch each other on the end of the spear). For hours we snorkeled and fished. Nothing. Hawaiians we were not. John tagged one fish but it swam away surely becoming someone’s meal shortly after.

And then it happened. I aimed, let her rip and bam! Nailed it. Through the body of a ten inch snapper! I grabbed the sling and immediately pulled the speared fish out of the water and above my head. All I could think about was sharks! I suddenly pondered the wisdom of swimming with a bloody fish in the shark capital of the world! I swam a side stroke towards shore holding the fish out of the water and watching the blood of the stuck creature slowly running down my arm. “Must reach shore before blood reaches water. Must!” I swam like a champ and crawled on shore with my meager, but hard won catch. No sharks. And in retrospect, my frantic swimming and pounding heart were probably much more of a shark attractant than a little bit of snapper blood. I'm such a pussy. Nonetheless I stumbled onto shore the proud hunter.

The False Alarm
On another trip to the Bahamas John and I fished and snorkeled the bay between Harbor Island and Eleuthera.* One day we anchored the boat and donned our snorkel gear and started exploring some scattered reefs. After a rather frustrating and completely unsuccessful attempt to catch a spiny lobster for lunch, we stumbled upon a rather large colony of brain coral sitting lonely in the middle of a large patch of sand. It was a large dome about five feet tall and easily as wide. It was pretty cool looking. Then we left.

The next day we went to the same location and I lead a rather reluctant and inexperienced snorkeler towards the coral, excited to share the cool spectacle. About ten yards away I suddenly saw a large fish about a foot above the coral staring directly at me, head on. Thump thump thump went my chest as my first assessment tagged it as a shark. But the fish quickly shifted slightly sideways exposing it’s mass and I saw the unmistakable under-bite of a great barracuda (see pic). That fucker was easily 5 feet long and meaty. I have swam with barracuda before, young ones in small schools that seemed very comfortable with my presence, but this giant fucker stared us down, staying right above the brain coral as though to say “this is my brain and you ain’t invited.” I motioned for my companion to stop which he did and then he quickly started swimming for the boat. I stalled for a minute, staring at the incredible fish and then I slowly started swimming backwards, fins in front of me, never taking my eyes off that sucker as he held his ground over the coral. Several yards away I lost visibility but continued to swim backwards and look in the same direction.

The Future
In 2007 I was laid up for a week because of a surgery I had and my sweet younger sister flew up to Oakland to help me out. This particular week just happened to be Shark Week. So our days were pretty much an alternating pattern of eating, napping, taking drugs (me only), and watching Shark Week. By the end of the week Marcy and I had made a pact to head west to Hawaii and take a turn in a shark cage. We shook on it. We’ve reconfirmed our commitment many times and when our schedules and bank accounts finally line up, we will do it. Bring it on!

The End. For Now.

* I struggled to learn how to properly pronounce the name of this island and would often blurt out the word “urethra” instead of "Eleuthera", a mistake I am sure would not be appreciated by a Bahamian. But I cracked myself up with my lameness!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Huh? What?

Since prattling on about my brother’s sensitivity to noises it got me to thinking about my own ears. For the past several years I have been known to say “what?” more than the average person. If there is competing background noise when someone is speaking to me they need to enunciate and speak at a determined volume. Otherwise they get my “I’m sorry…what did you say?” Or the more familiar, “huh?”

Over the years my ex got increasingly annoyed with my frequent “whats?” Fearing her nasty retorts to my “what?” I started to wait a few seconds after being the recipient of her mumbled utterings….thinking to myself, “ok Mer, you think she said ‘please take all my cash’…but that really doesn’t make any sense cause we are in the middle of cleaning the kitchen – hmmm, what sounds like cash? Oh! She said ‘please take out the trash!’” I didn’t always get it right and would often be forced to sheepishly ask her to repeat herself, which she did, often with derision in her voice.

The day finally came when I said to her, “Hey, my ears are bad from going to too many clubs and concerts when I was young! I am not ignoring you! I just can’t fucking hear!”

Eager to prove myself an attentive listener with damaged equipment I made an appointment with an audiologist to have my concert-club-iPod-beaten ears tested. The day of my appointment I arrived at the modest office and was greeted by a young and very attractive doctor of the ear. Dr. Ear explained the series of tests she was going to administer and politely escorted me to a sound-proof booth and instructed me to put on the headphones sitting on the chair inside. She closed me in the booth then subjected me to a series of tests where I had to identify various sounds under different circumstances, including identifying a sound in one ear while noise was piped separately into the other ear.

After all the tests were completed Dr. Ear lead me to her office and sat behind her desk with my test results in front of her. She looked at me and smiled and then said, “Marie, you have excellent hearing.” She showed me a sheet of paper summarizing my results which were all above normal or excellent. I was stunned and asked, “Well then how come I am always struggling to hear what people say?” She again smiled and said, “You can hear perfectly you just have a hard time processing what you are hearing.” My jaw dropped and I blurted, “oh great, my problem isn’t my ears, its cognitive degradation?!”

Dr. Ears smiled and patiently explained that it was not cognitive degradation but rather a reduction in the effectiveness of the mechanism that processes the hearing inputs from my ears. She assured me that my cognition, by all appearances, was just fine. She continued that such processing problems are common in people in their 40s and that in effect this is experienced as difficulty hearing. I made several more self-deprecating jokes about my apparently waning mental abilities and watched the hot Dr. Ears laugh, then I shook her hand, thanked her, and headed home with my stereo blaring Sublime.

I came home, my excellent hearing results in hand, and explained to my ex that I have a processing problem. She listened patiently and acknowledged that my “whats?” were not a personal affront to her. A few minutes later she yelled at me from the other room, “will you please go to the store?” I was puzzled, “what do you need at the store?” She poked her head around the corner, smiled and said, “I said would you please close the door, I am cold.” I closed the door and she stopped mumbling quite so much.

Death, Dying, Surfing, and the Absurd (Oct. 2008)

Life, at times, can be relentlessly serious. A family member of a friend (who has already suffered a disproportionate amount of loss in her life) is weeks away from dying too young….she has actually already gone and soon her body will follow as her loved-ones sit and wait, and hopefully, make some kind of peace with it all. Another dear friend has just come through a final surgery and is thankfully recovering from cancer and embracing life with a fierce, new gusto. And my adopted Jewish Grandmother, in her 80s, has just won her second battle with breast cancer and is worried about her pending trip to Europe, hoping she will be well and strong enough to share the adventure and joy with her granddaughter. This is the stuff of life and death and love…the looming of the inevitable while we work to appreciate the now. These are some of the dramas that are personal to me right now.

And then there is the “out there” I read about and watch on the news. I watch as the Atlantic Ocean launches cyclonic bombs at the islands and the southern coast. I watch as the banks fail and the value of our houses and retirement funds plummet. I watch as the price of gas skyrockets while oil companies reap record profits and the politicians babble on about what to do. I watch as McCain gains in the poles and the war rages on and on. I note again and again the conspicuous absence of reporting on the death tolls for non-Americans in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And last night I made the mistake of watching the chilling documentary, “Witness 911” (I should not have done that). And I listen to the pundits pontificate…and I watch as the debates narrow into ridiculous sound-bite slinging….and I marvel at the absurdity. And yet, I don’t want to write about these things. In fact, I can’t write about these things.

On Saturday my friend Deb and I headed to the beach even though it was overcast. We go where Deb has been going for decades, Scotchman’s Cove on the Newport coast, a picturesque stretch of clear water and rugged bluffs hugging a sandy beach peppered with rock reefs and jagged outcroppings. As we pulled into the parking lot we noted a large party of surfers putting on wetsuits and unloading their longboards…unusual for this particular beach. We grabbed our stuff and headed down the steep stairs to the beach and pitched our spot in the sand. We gabbed about this and that and the sky slowly cleared as the sun burned away the marine layer.

Then Deb suddenly says, “Look, it’s a funeral.” I turn around and sure enough there are about twenty-five surfers paddling out past the break towards a small power boat sitting in the calm sea. The surfers paddle into a circle next to the boat and Deb and I sit and watch in silence. A group of people stand at the stern of the boat apparently addressing the circle of surfers. After a few minutes the surfers begin cheering and splashing in unison. They are out there in the circle for some time remembering and celebrating…and then they paddle back to shore. They collect on the beach and eat and drink….the living remembering.

When we leave Deb and I walk along the water and we see the flowers, roses and plumarias everywhere…a beautiful littering of sentiment washed up along the edge of the great Pacific Ocean. I turn to Deb, my friend of 32 years, and say, “If I die before you, ask folks to paddle out for me, ok? Use my boards and spread me over the sea.” She smiles and nods, “Of course.”

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tales From the Bungalow: Jimmy is Tortured by What Only He Can Hear

My brother Jimmy has very sensitive ears, which, if you knew him as a young boy, seems a bit ironic. He was a loud young lad. Very loud. His favorite TV show was Emergency, that 1970’s series that chronicled the do-goodings of two competent young paramedics working the streets of Los Angeles. In those days common was the sight of Jimmy sticking his head out the window of the family station wagon wailing like an “Emergency” siren. We used to joke that so compelling was his siren imitation that cars actually pulled over for the would-be emergency vehicle. The boy could belt it out.

Since those early years it is now well known in the family that if one shrieks or yells in close proximity of Jimmy, he will immediately sport a pained expression and seek to get away from the offending sound-source. He regularly, after getting into my car, turns down the stereo while making faces like an annoyed little-old-lady, declaring, “that is just too loud.” Granted, I tend to play my music quite loud, especially in the car….but Jimmy, we’re in our 40s, not our 90s dear brother!

On several occasions while on a road trip with my brother he has suddenly demanded, “Do you hear that? That rattling noise?” while frantically moving things around the car, shifting CD cases, opening and closing the ashtray, pushing on various panels trying to identify the source of the offending noise. There is no peace until the situation is corrected which sometimes involves pulling off the highway and shuffling things around in the car. I am not kidding. I am not exaggerating. This has happened. More than once. Anyway, you get the picture. The guy is sensitive.

A few months ago a PG&E energy audit of my little bungalow identified my ancient refrigerator as an abominable energy waster and suggested that a new cold box would quickly pay for itself in electricity cost savings. So I decided to buy a new Energy Star fridge, my contribution to saving the planet. Besides, with Jimmy now living with me, we needed more room for his beer and a better setup cause we are both not the greatest bachelors and will forget about food we have bought if we don’t see it front and center. And forgotten food goes bad. And it stinks. Wasting food? Not good for the planet. Stinking food? Not good for impressing would-be girlfriends.

I took Jimmy with me to Sears to pick out the refrigerator. Like some strange Bay-Area couple we checked out the various fridges, contemplating styles, cost versus function, etc. I knew I wanted a bottom drawer freezer with an ice-maker. At last we decided on a nice Kenmore which was delivered and installed a few days later. Ah, a nice new fridge with plenty of room and the food stuff all up top so we could see it and remember to eat it.

The next morning, a Saturday, Jimmy walks into my bedroom and with me bleary-eyed and still in bed he asks “Do you hear that?” “What?” I respond. “That.” I listen hard. “Nope. I don’t hear anything.” I ask him what the hell he is talking about. Jimmy has that pained look on his face and says, “The ice-maker….I heard it all night.” I can’t hear a fucking thing but we head into the kitchen and he opens the freezer drawer, points at the ice tray and explains that after the fridge makes the ice cube it drops noisily into the plastic tray. And the sound is driving him nuts. Now mind you, the fridge sits on the other side of my bedroom wall. I hear nothing. Jimmy’s room is down a short hall away from the kitchen. He is tortured.

In the days following, when hanging out at home, Jimmy would suddenly erupt with, “There it goes! Did you hear that?” Usually I did not. But one night I did catch the little clink of the cube of ice landing on the other little cubes of ice in the plastic tray. Ok, Jimmy is not crazy. At least not for that.

Then one day I come home, open the freezer drawer to grab some ice for my drink and discover a dish towel draped across the ice tray with a few ice cubes resting on top of it. I look at Jimmy inquisitively and he explains that the towel absorbs some of the sound of the ice cubes falling into the tray. He is sleeping better at night with the little makeshift padding strategically placed in our freezer drawer. Weeks pass. Then the other day I went for some ice and saw that the towel had disappeared. Now that the tray is relatively full, it seems Jimmy’s life has gotten a little easier here in the Bungalow. Meanwhile, I still don’t hear a fucking thing.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

I Want to Flush the Toilet

After I take a gut relieving piss and pull my pants up over my substantial arse I want to turn around and be in control of the flushing away of my urine. Is that so wrong? Is it so wrong that I don't want to be jolted by a sudden roar behind my half covered self followed by an unwanted spray on my backside because the ghost in the machine has decided it is now time to flush my piss? Please, just give me a foot pedal, let me work back into the security of my Levis, and then I will flush the fucking toilet myself. I promise. I will do it.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Review of Cafe No Se

My friend Steve asked me to write a review for the bar he manages, Cafe No Se, in Antigua, Guatemala. It is my favorite bar. In the world. For the record, here is the fruit of my effort.

If you like dark smoky places with surly bartenders, drunks who speak Latin, soulful musicians, oddballs and freaks, "artists and actors and writers and such" poets and cynics, international do-gooders and people who read books, sloshy raconteurs, excellent tequila and custom infused mezcal (watch out for the pepper hooch)...if you want to be in a place where laughter and love are as free-flowing as the booze...a place where people will see the good in you and forgive you for your sins, No Se is for you! And if you find yourself in this scrappy brilliant place, hug the bartenders for me, tip them well, and please, do not behave yourself! It is against the unstated rules!

WARNING: If you are uptight, sober in spirit (not necessarily in deed), anal retentive, a scaredy-cat, ungenerous with your love, secretive, hate talking about the carnal, don't like wildly inappropriate banter, and can't see the good in the scrappiest of characters, No Se is NOT for you. Go to Applebee’s and order an iceberg lettuce salad and a diet coke. You'll be happier there.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Back In Guatemala

I am in Antigua once again, ambling through the cobblestone streets choked with chicken bus exhaust, smiling and wishing folks good day in Spanish. Things are rough and completely lawless in many parts of Guatemala and arriving in Guatemala City at night was not my preference...I was a little nervous for the hour long cab ride into Antigua. But it proved uneventful and I arrived at Lucky and Jose´s before midnight. They greeted me with shouts from the balcony and then hugs in the street. Everything is much the way it was when I left here last in January. But the recent increase in violence (more violence in an already notoriously violent place), the political corruption and instability, the lack of any cohesive or effective law enforcement, loom as the perpetual back drop to life here...a reality that can pop-out and become bloodily manifest in an instant.

And I am not being dramatic here. I have heard many stories....first hand accounts. During my last trip a few months ago, my Spanish teacher attended two funerals within a month, two young friends lost. The first was a car accident...killed by a drunk driver. The second, a young woman driving home from Guatemala City, was shot in the head and left dead in her car in the middle of the road. The motive is still unknown as it did not appear to be a robbery and she had not been raped.

Then there was a sweet Guatemalan bartender from No Se, who's girlfriend was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after several men brandishing guns boarded their chicken bus and robbed everyone on board. Thankfully, no one was shot. And then there is another young man, a friend, whom I recently spoke with (he will remain un-named out of deference). He and I had many conversations during my last visit and we have kept in touch, chatting on facebook. But only recently did he share that both his parents were murdered when he was a toddler, part of the purging that was initiated in the early 1980s. You see, his parents were educated, his father a professor at a University in Guatemala City.

This reminded me of another friend's stories (again, I am being vague about the sources out of deference to my friends) about how, during the war, the military would board the chicken buses and search peoples things....if a book was found that person was yanked from the bus (and often disappeared or killed). Being educated, reading or being in possession of books...seditious according to the genocidal Guatemalan military.

And yet, although there are murderous gangs terrorizing the streets of Guatemala City, as my friend Mike noted in a recent email, "Here in Antigua we generally hear crickets." There is a peacefulness here, a predictability, a calm that one cannot imagine feeling in Guatemala City. And so I will amble the streets, sit in the cafes, read my books, and stay in a place of gratitude.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Want to Know if a Woman is a Homosexual?

The following is an actual instant message conversation I had with an old High School friend that recently tracked me down in that strange virtual Web 2.0 world known as facebook. Kerri and I were good friends in the olden days but have been out of touch for most of the past 20 plus years. To the best of my recollection here is what we wrote as we started to catch up:

Mer: Those days feel like a 1000 years ago.
Kerri: Why?
Mer: My life is so very different now.
Kerri: In what way?
Mer: Well, for one thing I am a big ol’ out homosexual.
Kerri: Ya think?
Mer: You knew?
Kerri: I had my suspicions. You always carried my skis for me.

So if there is a woman in your life whom you suspect is a homosexual and you want to confirm that without directly asking her, I suggest you invite her to go snow skiing and see if she offers to carry your skis for you. If she does, she is as homo as homo can be.

Note: I like semi-sarcastically using the word “homosexual” because I find it hilariously absurd.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Remembering the Atomic 4 (And I Am a Big Dork)

It’s true. It’s not that I just realized or discovered this fact about myself as I have been a big dork for as long as I can remember. But there are moments in my life when this reality suddenly comes into hyper-clear focus. Moments when I startle and say to myself, “my god Mer, you are such a dork.”

Recently, I experienced one of these moments. As is often my habit, I was eating scrambled eggs at a local diner with a magazine in front of me. I was reading an article in Good Old Boat entitled, “A History of the Universal Atomic 4.”

I once had an Atomic 4 engine in my old sailboat. This giant hunk of metal and I had a long and tumultuous relationship. My Atomic 4 was temperamental, obstinate, and unfaithful. She drove me nuts, emptied my wallet more than once, and regularly bloodied my knuckles. When she was cooperating, I felt a tentative and guarded affection for her, but I was always anticipating her next betrayal. And came it always did. And then I would cuss and throw things and pull out the shop manual huffing and puffing as I began, once again, trying to discern what my cranky Atomic 4 needed now. Eventually, the old gal died, cracked her head, which is a terminal condition for an engine. I replaced her with the ever loyal and dependable Yanmar 2GM20F.

So at the diner I am sitting with my magazine when I suddenly realize that I am getting excited reading things like, “Late-model engines with an integral thermostat housing in the cylinder head…” and “…optional 180°F thermostat that raises operating temperature…” I got a little thrill thinking, “Yes, the thermostat housing! I remember it well…and the hotter thermostat modification for the freshwater cooled engines. Oh boy.”

It was then that I stiffened in my seat and thought to myself, “I am such a big dork.” I actually laughed out loud. And then I thought about how ironic it was that I was reminiscing about that old cantankerous engine that left me anxious all the time I was sailing with her in the belly of my boat. But I also reflected that there were 50,000 of these engines made and put into production boats like mine. Most folks who have been around sailboats for a while know of the Atomic 4, and oddly enough, there was something comforting about reading this history shared by so many sailors and their mechanics.

When my Atomic 4 finally died, Mike, a salty, rambling, brilliant mechanic, was the guy who installed the new Yanmar and scrapped my old Atomic 4. The day I picked up my boat and handled the paper work, Mike caught me at the door and said he had one last thing to give me. He handed me a piece of paper which read:

Certificate of Death

We have some rather sad news. This is to certify that your very old, very sick, very tired, 4 cylinder gasoline engine, that was never designed to be saltwater cooled, has finally expired. It is DEAD. Its’ soul has joined its’ many brothers and sisters in the final resting place of the internal combustion engine.

Engine Model: Atomic 4
Date of Last Exhaust Stroke: 10-17-02
Location: Richmond Boat Works
Cause of Death: Natural, Inevitable
Attending Mechanic: Mike Haley
Witness: Ginger Hobart.

The family has requested that donations be sent directly to your
local Yanmar dealer.

A mechanic with a sense of humor. Nice. Believe me, one needs a reason to laugh after spending the serious money needed to install a new engine in an old sailboat). Mike had witnessed the death of many an Atomic 4 and so much a part of the sailing world was/is this old engine, he thought it kind and respectful to acknowledge its demise after 25 years of service (with a few insults imbedded).

As I drove home from the diner I got to thinking. I learned to be a better sailor because of that old engine. I was more alert and honed my skills
because I knew that old engine was not a reliable backup and the San Francisco Bay can be a challenging place to sail. I realized that beyond my anger and frustration with the old Atomic 4, there was some appreciation. I had participated in a popular part of small sailboat history. I had been christened into the world of sailing and marine engines by my years of relating to that old hunk of engine. May she rest in peace.

So there you have it….a personified remembrance of my Atomic 4. And I think this clearly shows that I am, in fact, a big dork.

NOTE: I absolutely love my new Yanmar…she has made sailing the Bay a whole new experience. Push the button, she turns over. Sweet. We never fight and she almost always runs. She only gets cranky when her fuel gets dirty or her lines get clogged. And that’s pretty darn easy to fix (with a sigh and a smile).