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!