Sunday, November 13, 2011

Why I Support the Occupy Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Mer Sweats

It all started a few years ago when my brother-in-law one night after dinner made reference to something he called "the meat sweats." When I asked what the hell he was talking about he explained that Alex, a large Russian man whom he worked with, had come back to the office one day after a hearty lunch, dripping with sweat and declared that he had the meat sweats. Well I thought that was just hilarious. Especially since my entire life I have been prone to being sweaty.

Fast forward to Antigua, Guatemala, where on the northeast side of town there is a minuscule and charming restaurant called Hector's run by a talkative Guatemalan man named, you guessed it, Hector. My friend Catherine, a globe trotting American expat who splits her year between sleepy Kino Bay, Mexico, and Paris, France, suggested that Hector's served one of the best steak-sandwiches she has ever eaten. Catherine, like me, spends her money on food, drink, and travel. But, unlike me, she has dined for decades all over Europe and is a connoisseur of sorts. When she says something is good, she knows what she is talking about. So a couple of hours later we were full of delicious steak and a bottle of red wine. And I can now say I agree fully with Catherine's assessment.

After dinner we were walking down the cobblestone street towards our favorite bar when I complained about being sweaty and then asserted that I must have the "meat sweats." Catherine also thought this was hilarious. And so it began, the obsessive naming of my sweats. Later that night at Cafe No Se, where the doors close at midnight, and I don't mean the bar closes, I mean the doors close with the patrons still inside and it gets damn hot, Catherine noted my shiny face and observed that I, obviously, had the No Se sweats.

From then on all my sweats were named by me and my friends. There were the hangover sweats, the plane sweats, the boat sweats, the watching George Bush on the news sweats, the tropics sweats (the most appropriate I would say), the beer-tequila-and/or-wine sweats, the sitting-in-the-park sweats....the list goes on and on. And recently, while travelling in Europe, a cab driver dropped me at the wrong address in the middle of the night and after some wandering around and asking for help (dragging my suitcase behind me) I showed up at my friend Ana's apartment with the lost-in-Amsterdam sweats. She understood - she's seen me with the No Se sweats.

One might think this an odd topic to write about but if you are a sweaty person it might make sense. My sweats didn't start in mid-life when I started eating and drinking in Antigua, Guatemala. I can remember being a little kid running hard through the neighborhood, playing sports of all kinds with the older boys on my street, giving it my all. I would come inside for a glass of coolaid and my mother would note how beat red and sweaty I was and would suggest maybe I take a break. I never did. I would just guzzle my drink and head out for more rough and tumble. More football-baseball-basketball and kick-the-can sweats.

And then I grew up and in retrospect see that I had the puberty sweats, the I'm-in-the-closet sweats, the flirting with a hot chick sweats, the grad school sweats and the list goes on. And now that I am 47 years old, I am less inclined to give a shit what people think about me when it comes to things I seem to have little control over, including that the good lord made me such that I sweat a lot. And it's a good thing too because I just started having the perimenopause sweats. Oh goody!

They aren't bad and it took me a awhile to even notice it was happening. I facilitate meetings for a living, often intense meetings where I am actively engaged, concentrating intently, keeping the group on task and diffusing conflict. And when I am leading a room, making sure folks are comfortable and the temperature is good, I have come to realize that if I feel just a little bit sweaty then everyone else is probably just right. If I am chilly then everyone else is probably hypothermic.

One day at work, talking to a friend/colleague, I made reference to being hot and my friend said, "oh my wife too, she's always waking me up in the night, heaving the covers off." I said, "oh no, it's not that, I just run hot." Then I started noticing that the sweats were coming a little more often and in waves. Nothing too intense but slightly different than any sweats I had known to date. No biggy. Add it to the list. And those who love me don't mind my sweats. In fact, they help me name them.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

At Least I am Not Allergic to Bees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Chapter 3

The death of a parent - for anyone who knows their parents, whether they like, love or loathe them - is a right of passage. The primal role one plays in life is that of off-spring, child. When your parents die you're done with that role, or more aptly put, the role is no longer available to you. It's not a choice.

I did not visit my mother's grave for years. After they lowered her into the ground I turned and walked away, didn't look back. I had not seen the headstone my sisters picked out to be delivered at some point, after the funeral, after the mason made the cuts, engraved the names and dates. I knew whatever they were putting under that dirt, under that headstone, it was not my mother so it didn't matter.  None of it mattered.

A few years later I decided to move hundreds of miles north of my mother's grave to San Francisco to be near my sister and try to get into graduate school, to be in a City where I could exhale and start anew.  "Chapter 2" I called it.  A restart, a clean page, a jump in the narrative where the details between that place and the new one could be intimated and inferred instead of detailed.  Chapter 1 was the "heretofore" I was happily abandoning and Chapter 2 was the unbridled "and then."  It became part of my vernacular, "Chapter 2," a rhetorical affirmation that what was behind me was in fact behind me and what lay ahead would be different.  And after saying it again and again I believed it.  And in many ways, more ways than not, it was different.  It was new.  I left much behind, happily. 

It was only after I decided to move north that something drew me to visit my mother's grave before I left.  Years had passed since the funeral and when I arrived at the cemetery on a sunny July day I had no idea where in the consecrated ground my mother's body lay.  I stopped at the office and was given a map with a circled plot number.  The staff politely explained the directions and I nodded.  It was all very serious and dignified. I wondered what it would be like to have a job that dealt with death everyday, a job where solemnity was required. 

After counting my way through the plots of dead strangers, I found my mother's grave. I read the headstone, "Donna C. Rainwater" and the words were sadly comforting.  And then the dates - November 25, 1937, my mother's birthday, her beginning.  The date was familiar and warm, it was birthday cakes and presents after a special meal, a celebration of her beginning, her existence.  And then November 30, 1989 - a mnemonic for grief - a personal 9/11 or a "where were you when Kennedy was shot?"  The date that changed the trajectory, changed the fundamental composition of things.  This date, too, had become familiar.  But the two dates, carved in stone, next to each other, it  punched me, hard, coldcocked me as though I'd just turned a corner and ran into an angry usurer who landed one in the solar plexus, as though I was over-due in paying the debt of reading those dates in succession, carved in stone.  There it was, fixed and permanent, beyond argument, the beginning and the end. 

Ten days before my mother died I took her to a divorce attorney.  She was on the brink of ending a miserable marriage but the financial picture the attorney laid out was not good.  She would lose the house, a house that meant everything to my mother, stability, upward mobility, home.  She was raised in a trailer park and as a young child spent a good amount of time sitting in the family car at night, waiting for her mother and her drunk father to emerge from the tavern and head home.  That house grounded her, assuaged some of the chaos of her youth.  Losing the house and living alone threatened something so primal in my mother I think she simply left the planet instead of facing it.  I think she looked around, saw five good kids, grown, relatively happy, on their way to something better, and she felt done.  Done enough.  She simply left rather than face her biggest fears.

I remember vividly the last time I saw my mother, a few short hours before she died.  I was juggling school, work, and falling in love for the first time and I was generally exhausted.  It was the afternoon and I was due to work a swing shift at my security job in LA. I had fallen asleep on the couch and she came home and woke me asking if I shouldn't be on my way.  I jumped up, panicked, grabbed my gear and was off.  But I remember her face when she woke me, she was concerned, vulnerable, extra sweet, calm.  I remember noting her demeanor as I drove my truck north on the 405.  Three hours later she was dead.  My mother's story was over. 

When I looked down at my mother's headstone that afternoon I understood in a way few other experiences could have conveyed: Mer, there's an end to this thing, so figure out what you want to do.  After my visit I turned and walked away for the second time.  Chapter 1 - The End.  I then literally bullied my way into a grad program and San Francisco seduced me and made me fall in love with her and a long honeymoon was ours (I still don't think it's over...maybe it's true love).  Some of the best years of my life, so far, were those years in grad school, living in the City, living the beginning of Chapter 2 when everything felt possible. But with any good book, any good story, the conflict emerges and the arc builds and so it did.  I left the City, settled down into something, and peaked Chapter 2 with a story line so ridiculous I don't tell it anymore, not the craziest parts. It's one of those truth is stranger than fiction sorta things.  And I give myself a few points for creativity.  But now it's done.  Chapter 2 - The End.  That's what I have decided.

I am five years shy of the age my mother died.  Not that I think her fate is mine.  I don't.  And I pray I am right.  But to remember my mother's story is a reminder to get on with things, to not be hobbled by fear and uncertainty.  And so, Chapter 3.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Conversations with Jimmy

My brother Jimmy and I are home cleaning the house, doing laundry and yard work and whatnot on a very warm spring day.  I pass Jimmy in the kitchen where Jimmy lifts up his t-shirt and looks at his belly and the following conversation ensued:

Jimmy:  "I'm getting a little bit of a belly."

Mer: "Yeah, welcome to middle-age."

Jimmy:  "I know, I gotta start using meth."

As always folks, true story.  I think he's out trying to find a dealer right now and in our hood he won't have to go far.

Friday, March 25, 2011

It's a Miracle!

My mother, when it came to meeting her Catholic obligation to procreate, chose to beg for forgiveness instead of ask for permission when she finally decided to stop making babies. She made an appointment to see a priest at our Catholic church, St. I-, and then found herself sitting across from Father K-, the middle-aged man to whom she confessed that she had insisted her non-Catholic husband (my father) have a vasectomy (which he promptly did).  She now, after the fact, wanted to know if she had committed a sin.  Father K- was a reasonable man (as reasonable as one can be while believing in a virgin birth and that the eucharist is actually the body of Christ) and he asked her, "Do you think it is a sin?"  "No" she said, "I have five children, I think I have met my obligation to procreate."  "Then don't worry about it," was the priest's response.  My mother had no intention of having anymore children, she just wanted to understand if she had sinned, needed to confess, and what was the appropriate amount of guilt, if any, that she should carry for her transgression.  Luckily the priest let her off the hook.  Five kids in eight years, she had done her job.  And so it was that in the early 70s there were quite a few of us little Rainwaters, all young, living in a small house in a Los Angeles suburb.

Growing up in a small three bedroom house, my two sisters and I shared a tiny room and my brother Jimmy and our youngest sister shared the small room across the hall.  Juls had her own bed and Lauri and I split a bunk bed with me on top.*  During these early years, I had many friends who had their own bedrooms in larger houses in families with fewer kids and more money.  And I coveted my neighbors privilege and privacy.  At night I would wait for the first star in the sky to emerge and then I would wish upon it, wish for my own room (and for a horse, for my young self longed to be a cowboy).  Of course it never happened, the room or the horse.  In fact, the first time I had my own room I was 27 years old.  And I have yet to own a horse. 

There's an old saying that in Catholic families you have two kids and then they raise the rest.  And there's some truth to this.  At a very young age I had quite a bit of responsibility for my younger siblings and at times felt a bit overwhelmed and stifled by that reality.  My mother felt some sympathy for me and in small ways tried to be responsive.  Aware of my perennial desire to have my own room, which was not possible, my mother got creative and bought me a little cabinet with sliding doors and placed it on the shelf above my bunk.  She explained to the other kids that this was my private cabinet and no one else was to open it.  She tried to create some personal space for me as I was, apparently, the kid most bothered by our cramped circumstances.  I was maybe 8 or 9 years old at the time and I remember a feeling of privilege in having my private little cabinet which I promptly crammed with the junk of a young tomboy.  I don't remember there being anything particularly private about the things I chose to put in my cabinet, all I remember is that it was my space that the other four kids were not allowed to enter.  It was my box of privacy in a house where there was virtually none.   

Now the story I am about to share was not revealed to me until years after it happened and I recently confirmed the details with my sister Juls who is at the center of this little tale.  And I think I should preface it with a brief description of my sister Juls.  She was a shy, skinny, bookish kid who did what she was told, excelled in school, never talked back...she was my opposite, the good kid, the easy kid. 

One day my sister Juls, uncharacteristically, decided to climb up on my bunk to see what was in my private little cabinet.  She slid open the door and saw my GI Joe doll reclined on top of some other junk.   Juls picked up the doll and for some reason decided to pull off the boot he was wearing.  To her horror, she looked down to see the foot of the doll had come off with the boot.  Convinced she had just broken him, she panicked and quickly put the GI Joe back in the cabinet along with the boot containing his apparently amputated foot.  Juls then spent days quietly fretting and worrying about her crime, her sin, her violation of my private space and mutilation of my GI Joe. 

GI Joe circa 1972. 
A few days later Juls decided to check and see if I had discovered her crime.  She once again climbed up on my bunk, slid open the cabinet door and then she saw it, the GI Joe once again intact, his foot attached to his leg.  Somehow my GI Joe had been made whole again, alone in that cabinet, by forces incomprehensible to her.  In her mind, the conclusion was plain: it was a miracle.  She was relieved and grateful that this miracle left her out of trouble, the way she preferred to be.  Juls never messed around in my cabinet again.  

Soon after witnessing this apparent miracle, Juls was in her CCD class (religious training for those of us who escaped Catholic school).  Her teacher was leading a discussion on miracles and asked the class for an example of one.  Juls, always the exemplary student, immediately raised her hand and then confidently explained that she had broken her big sister's GI Joe doll and that it miraculously had been made whole.   The teacher did not challenge her in class or humiliate her but quickly changed course by asking for an example of a miracle from the bible.  Although she was surprised that the teacher didn't seem to think hers was a good example, Juls didn't think much of it and continued believing she had witnessed a miracle in the mysterious making whole of my GI Joe. 

It was not too long after that CCD class that Juls and I were playing together, she with her Barbie and me with my GI Joe.  At some point I started to change the camo uniform of my doll and alas, when I pulled off his boot, off came his foot.  I casually pulled the foot from the boot and reinserted the peg into the hole in the lower leg of my doll and then I continued to change his uniform and put the boots back on his feet.  Of course, Juls watching me do this resulted in a profound disillusionment as she realized my GI Joe had not been miraculously made whole by god.  She realized that the foot came off quite easily and was just as easily reattached to his leg by her older sister, Mer, not god.  She realized that I had found the GI Joe dismembered in my cabinet and simply fixed it. She did not share all this with me at the time as she still felt guilt for violating my privacy.  But years later she confessed the story which I found bitter-sweetly hilarious.  And just the other day she reminded me of this little youthful disillusionment and we had a good laugh. 

Today if you asked Juls if she believes in miracles, she would say yes.  But not the Catholic kind, not the kind that result in the inexplicable repairing of GI Joe dolls.  It would be the seemingly magical synchronicities that lead our lives in the direction we are trying to go, the way the universe can help you along sometimes.  And I would agree.

* When I turned 12 we moved across town to a larger house where the girls each shared a bedroom and Jimmy had his own room.  My folks, practicing the rhythm method of birth control, had not bought their first home with the intention of having five kids in eight years, including one set of twins. And these days, I not only have my own room, I have my own house, which after 10 years still seems like a damn miracle to me. Seriously.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Life is Laundry"

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 14, 2011

Conversations with Jimmy

Jimmy and his new lady friend, Rachel, were cooking dinner at the bungalow this rainy evening.  Rachel, an avid cook, was obviously in charge, but Jimmy was reading the recipe and working hard to be a helpful assistant (Jimmy can't cook, by his own admission).  After Jimmy read the instructions for the amount of the salt and pepper needed, the following conversation ensued.

Jimmy:  "Do we need to measure the salt and pepper now?"

Rachel: "No."

Mer:  "Jimmy, don't you know a pinch and a dash?"

Jimmy:  "No, is that a band?"

These conversations are all true.  I could not make this stuff up. I'm not that clever.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Conversations with Jimmy

Jimmy and I were sitting in our favorite breakfast diner, the place where if either of us shows up alone the waitresses ask, "is your brother/sister coming?"  A place where they know our breakfast orders by heart and the chef's give us a knowing nod.  We always bring our newspapers, Jimmy the NY Times, me the Oakland Tribune, and then rarely read them. We talk instead.

Today we talked movies.  Jimmy was asking what I had seen, what I liked and why. He was asking about Winter's Bone and I was sharing a few things, enough to entice but not spoil.  That's how we got onto the subject of his visit to the Ozarks with his then girlfriend who was from Kansas City. 

Jimmy is a jittery type when it comes to crime, always nervous someone's gonna "get" him.  He plays it up, makes fun of himself...but he's also serious.  He pays me his rent in cash and refuses to go to a local ATM in Oakland.  He waits till he's near his work, through the tunnel in the burbs.  He does this every month.  I heckle him.  We laugh.

So today as I shared a little about Winter's Bone he starts talking about driving through the Ozarks and being nervous and then finally coming to a friend's house in the middle of nowhere.  Erect in his seat, eyes wide, smiling, Jimmy then said the following: 

"I was scared.  I was from California and everyone could tell.  I didn't have a mullet. I didn't have a koozie. I didn't have a mustache. I didn't ride a Harley and I had to ask why everything in the house and on the property was spray-painted, chained, and padlocked.  It was because the meth-heads get all hopped-up and come down from the hills and steal everything and it's easier to identify your car or your washing machine if you have spray-painted your name on it."  

I grabbed a pen and a napkin and wrote that one down.  True story folks.

Monday, January 10, 2011


There's a certain perversion in holding a piece of photo paper and having one's past stare back...seeing the eyes of a you that no longer exists, a 12 or 20 or 30 year old Mer who in my mind's eye has become sanded soft and distant, safe even. And then there she is, two dimensional but slightly animated nonetheless, present in some sort of perverted resurrection. It fucks with the mind, jolts one back to a place that maybe one need not or should not go.