Moments with People

Sunflowers along the road to Boulder, 2016

Sunflowers along the road to Boulder, 2016

At Sprouts, a woman and two pre-teens. A boy and a girl, they alternate between picking at each other and asking Mom to buy something. “Mom, Mom, let’s get this.” No, she says. No and no and no. She’s at the checkout with a full cart when the boy brings a package of cookies. At wit’s end, because apparently they aren’t getting it in English, Mom switches to rapid-fire Spanish that is basically “What did I tell you? Are you even listening? I’m not buying another thing so me dejen en paz.” The kids stop immediately. Leaving her in peace indeed, they go to the entrance to wait, still elbowing each other.

Delivering the neighborhood newsletter, I come upon a black family moving out of a duplex on 30th, helped by a brother visiting from back east. “In New York,” he’s telling them, “you can buy a case of umbrellas for $13, take them uptown and so long as it’s raining, people will give you $5 or $10 apiece for them.” I calculate: profit of maybe $140 for a long day’s work in the rain. And since he’s bragging, it must be better than folks do around here.

A couple from Manual High School, Hispanic, slender and good-looking, leave the campus and cross the street hand in hand, scarcely waiting until they turn the corner to pause for a kiss before lighting up. On the alley, a bunch of sunflowers is in full bloom. The girl slides her phone out of the back pocket of her jeans and takes photos of these bright beauties, also brown-eyed children of the sun.

I’ve been idly gazing out my window at Ocho, my neighbor Jenn’s cat, perched atop the privacy fence between our yards. So called because he already lost one of his nine lives, he’s part Siamese and loves high places. He walks the top of the fences, leaps up and down easily. Jenn steps into her yard and Ocho immediately paces toward her, making as if to jump, hesitating, meowing pitifully. She coos, encourages him. He remains on the fence, meowing. Eventually Jenn stretches up to reach him, upon which he scrambles away from her. “Watch,” Ocho says. “I can make her come over here.”

The coffee shop closed so we went across the street to the old Greek diner to meet. “We’re back in America now,” Marilyn says. Basic eggs and pancakes, no lattes or scones. None of the coffee shop regulars join us: I presume they opted for the nearest Starbucks instead. I have the temerity to ask if I can get blueberries in my short stack. “No, honey. We have strawberry compote.” “That’s good,” I say, although I know it won’t be. “You were being too fancy,” the waitress snaps. Yep. Back in America.

I go for a quick swim at the motel. Besides me, there are only a father, sitting in a chair and his daughter, perhaps seven, bobbing in the pool. She has what Henry Louis Gates describes as “good hair,” a loose curl; an angelic face, large shining eyes. Are you coming in, she asks eagerly. If there are no choices, small children are not particular about who they play with. Old white ladies will do. Is it cold? I ask. No, she says. I step in. You lied to me, I reprove. No, you just have to get used to it and then it’s not cold, she tells me wisely. As we swim the length and back at a leisurely pace, I learn that her name is Grace and they are from Houston—Ten minutes, Gracie, Dad calls—and they went to Royal Gorge today and tomorrow they’re going to Garden of the Gods, and she really loves swimming—five minutes, Gracie—and after this they’ll go to Yellowstone and look, how the water is warmer here on the deep end by the lights—time to go, Gracie. Ten more minutes, Gracie asks automatically, in the way children do when they know the answer already and have accepted it. You already had ten more minutes. Mom’s waiting for us. Grace, I say, I’ll race you to the stairs. When we get there she observes, you slowed down at the end. Adults always do that.

At the KUVO donor appreciation night, Steve Chaves, one of the DJs, takes us back to the studio for a visit because we’re first-timers. He nods to the DJ on duty, says it’s bigger than most control rooms, shows us the extensive music library. Suddenly he says, “Shh, listen, he’s doing a transition.” We go silent as the song ends. The DJ grins at us. “And now we’re going to hear Etta James doing the Eagles. She’s taking it to church.”

The Eagles have never been so holy.

Posted in Memoir | 2 Comments

Three Weeks

This reminder appeared at our local coffee shop the day after the election.

This reminder appeared at our local coffee shop the day after the election.

Three weeks. Three weeks since 2.5 million more of us voted for Hillary than him and it didn’t matter. I’ve calmed down since then. I’ve been comforted by a gathering of friends for Thanksgiving, good food and conversation. At the table, we signed “Not Bannon” postcards to send to Trump. Richard signed his, “your friend.” I hope Trump gets many.

Some people have made me laugh, including my former student Tim: “I feel like Trump is going to replace the Constitution with the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition.”

I’ve been revived by swift actions many have taken. More than 20,000 donated to Planned Parenthood in Mike Pence’s name. He gets a certificate for each donation. That’s special. Ben was one of those 20,000 and he also thoughtfully signed Pence up for the newsletter. Rumor has it some Planned Parenthood staff were so impressed they put a photo of the Vice President-elect on their wall.

Professor Jim, on learning of a possible “watchlist” to expose professors promoting leftist propaganda: “I presume I will end up on the list for teaching that evolution is real, that the main mechanism of evolution is Darwinian natural selection, that climate change is real and driven by human activities, and that we are living in the sixth Anthropocene mass extinction. So be it.” saw a surge in shares. Normally they get 80-100 a day. On November 8 and 9, “more than 550 people tweeted out poems with 720 people retweeting those links.” Popular poems included Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” I have always known that poems matter, that, as William Carlos Williams said, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” It is heartening to this old poet to hear so many turned to poetry for solace.

I was revived by the grassroots revulsion at Trump’s cabinet and staff selections, by how people drafted statements, listed congressional phone numbers, gave tips on calling. Some were my former students, a generation that doesn’t make phone calls, found it hard to do, but did it. I did it myself, got to talk to real people at Democratic offices, mostly recorded messages at the Republicans. Hmmm…

I was revived by New York Mayor De Blasio’s great anti-hate speech, and San Francisco City Council’s proclamation. Go read them. They’ll cheer you up too.

And I was delighted with everyone who declared, “if they establish a Muslim registry, I’m signing up too.”

More than three weeks. I’ve had time to think. Trump changes positions daily, appoints billionaires who will damage things I care about, like public education. I’ve renewed my lapsed membership in PEN America. Trump’s not holding press conferences, berates journalists. I’m a writer, care about freedom of speech. PEN has for decades fought to get writers out of prison in other countries. Now they’re starting to monitor what’s happening here. In case.

I’ve thought about The Divide. I believe not all Trump voters are racists, hate other religions and think covering our national parks with oil wells is a fine idea. I believe those of us in the struggling middle/working class have more in common than we currently realize. We must make an effort to cross The Divide. I don’t know how yet. In my diverse corner of the world there are no Trump supporters.

December is giving month. This year Phil and I are asking for donations to charities/non-profits in our name. We’re doing the same for those we usually give gifts. (Children get a pass.) I have to support the American Civil Liberties Union: they bailed me out of jail in 1967. Beyond that, I haven’t decided. There are so many worthy organizations trying to protect the environment, immigrant rights, health care, election reform. All of them need volunteers. Look at what Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are trying to do and support those causes. Whatever you care about, now’s the time to step up.

I’ll make what donations I can, call congress people, send letters, repeat jokes. (Ferengi Rules is a good one, Tim.) I’ll wait until this man’s in office, see what precious thing is threatened first and then focus my efforts. There’s a reason Maya Angelou’s poem topped the list: hers is the spirit we need now.

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

The Five Stages of Grief: Election 2016

Hillary Campaign Button

Hillary Campaign Button

Stage One: Denial

A trend is developing in the Tuesday night returns. I get uncomfortable. “Let’s turn it off, come back in an hour. It’ll be different then.”

An hour later: “Let’s go to bed, wake up and it’ll be O.K.”

Three a.m.: “No, no, no, no! This is NOT happening. It isn’t true.”

Stage Two: Anger

Dear God, please damn to hell the following:

The miserable Americans who voted for him, those who voted for third party candidates, and most especially, please damn to hell those who did not vote at all. Those who spread lies about Hillary, those who believed them, those who were too lazy to do their own fact-finding. The media who gleefully joined the Trump circus. And most of all, this lying misogynist we just elected. Give him his own special circle in Dante’s Inferno.

Stage Three: Bargaining

Maybe when he realizes he lost the popular vote and needs to represent all of us, maybe he’ll suddenly, miraculously change into, you know, someone he’s not, a person who isn’t racist or despotic or mainly interested in how much money he can scam out of the government…or maybe the election WAS rigged and they’ll uncover it and Hillary really did win…or maybe he’ll have a heart attack—lord, no—then we’d get Pence. What if he decided to go with Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court? How about if I didn’t fall off my diet? Would that make a difference?

Stage Four: Depression

What’s the use? Calm and professional, Hillary reminds us in her concession speech that you win some and lose some, but good things will always be worth fighting for. I’m fine until the camera pans to a group of young Hispanic students with tears coursing down their cheeks. I lose it, manage to stop crying, then see the photo of Susan B. Anthony’s grave with the line of people waiting to put their “I voted” stickers on it. They cover the gravestone with stickers and I start weeping again. We’re in for four years of backsliding, four years of unraveling hard-fought for progress. What’s the use? Winter is coming. Curl up in a ball.

Stage Five: Acceptance

I’m done sulking, gather trash, throw a load in the washing machine, go out into this too-warm November day to rake leaves on hard, dry ground. These days, one medium-size trash bag, an hour’s effort, is all I can do, but today I’m a raging granny: furiously gather two huge leaf bags packed with yard detritus, finish the laundry, throw the trash, clean the kitchen. When I’m done, I’m sweaty and exhausted and dry-eyed.

Hillary: “Last night, I congratulated Donald Trump and offered to work with him on behalf of our country. I hope that he will be a successful president for all Americans.” President Obama invited Trump to the White House tomorrow to begin the transition planning. Gracious and decent, Obama puts the welfare of the country above his own feelings, reminds us that the presidency is a relay race and he wants a smooth handoff of the baton.

What’s Next?

I’ll be running through these stages of grief over and again, for weeks or years. At Reagan’s and Bush the Younger’s elections I grieved: I believe both damaged our country, but nothing like what I fear will happen now. Still, we have a system, checks and balances, and limits on what a president can do. How many defundings has Trump promised which cannot be delivered?

I regret damning Trump voters to hell when I was in the anger stage. I know they aren’t all racists, woman haters, people who won’t be happy until oil pipelines crisscross the country and not a tree is left standing.

Oops, that was anger again. This is going to be hard. Start over. Good people voted for Trump due to their economic woes, their anger at being ignored by both parties for decades. But even in those red states, most people believe in climate change and gay rights. Good people: just really pissed off.

I get emails from Sierra Club, Presente, MoveOn and PEN. (PEN promotes free expression and has a Muslim writer program.) All four groups ask me to join them in standing up to the new regime, which has vowed to oppose the issues they champion. Sierra Club’s email, for example, included this urgent list:

We will not — we cannot — stop fighting. If we do, we will lose everything we’ve             fought for. End of Paris Climate deal. End of the EPA. End of Federal Clean                           Energy. More drilling. More coal. More pipelines. Lives destroyed. Wildlife                          bulldozed.            

Meetings are already happening; organizing has begun. Pick your cause. There’s plenty to go around.

Watch carefully as the new White House takes shape. Unlike Obama, Trump is not a hands-on leader. He leaves nuts and bolts to staff. We need to monitor those people–who they are, what they’re doing. Trying to keep Muslims from entering the country? Building that wall?

We are stronger together. More than half of us voted for Hillary. If enough of us act, we can salvage what we love. You knew that, right? That democracies require an involved, informed citizenry to survive?

Thursday, November 10, 2016


 I wake up feeling disoriented. Wait: that was just a bad dream, wasn’t it?



Posted in Politics | 7 Comments

Spiders and the Election: November 6, 2016

Southern wood spider

Southern wood spider

We don’t kill spiders. At least, not when we can help it. Upstairs and down, we keep a spider jar. As I was going to bed last night, I noticed a pale spider on my night table, barefooted into the bathroom to get the jar and managed to coax her into it. Screwing on the lid, I examined the nearly transparent creature, counted her legs. Eight. Good. Sometimes in the effort to chase them into the jar, we lose a leg. I set the jar on the chest of drawers and went to bed.

When I woke, the spider had fashioned herself a small nest of web at the bottom of the jar and was tucked cozily within it. Spiders carry their survival abilities within them. We do too, in theory. Some of us are better at accessing them than others. It’s two days until election, and many of our defenses have been penetrated by stress.

Although we’ve had record warmth and dryness, we need morning sweaters. Too cold outside for this house spider. I set the jar aside while we had French toast and coffee, grazed through the news, dismayed as always by Trump supporter vitriol. Their words are abusive: I wish I could weave a protective web around everything and everyone they threaten.

When I was a girl in Florida, I spent the night with a friend whose mother kept wood spiders, their leg spread wide as my hand. I was a little afraid, watching two of them stationed on the ceiling as we went to sleep. “They eat mosquitoes, bring luck to a house,” my friend’s mother said. Later, I learned that spiders are symbols of the grandmother in some Native American traditions.

The election disturbs my sleep. I’ve done what I could. Gave a few dollars to Hillary. Voted. Wrote about it. I support causes I believe in, like Dems in this election, the ACLU or independent film. Two days ago we saw “American Epic: The Big Bang,” a documentary about how groups like the Carter Family and the Memphis Jug Band got recorded in the 1920s. The British director said only in America could such disparate music, created in poverty, be commercially recorded, sell widely and weave together to become the unique fabric that is American music. He admires us for that ethnic-mixing accomplishment.

Listening to savage Trump rhetoric all these months, I have become gloomy about Americans, about our racism and sexism and refusal to face facts. Fearing the damage a Trump presidency could do to our democracy, I’ve thought about running away. If Canada won’t have us, surely Mexico would. It took an outsider to remind me of the good we have here. That young British filmmaker brought tears to my eyes, made me remember that we have horrors aplenty, but we also have wonders. This is my country—and there’s much to be proud of in it.

After starting the laundry, I went onto the warmed back porch and turned the jar upside down. The spider spun swiftly from her web to the sunny wood. I wished her a peaceful rest of her life. She sat immobile a moment, then scurried out of sight between the planks.

My family was from the City. Spiders were not welcome in my mother’s house. Nearly sixty years ago, in a small frame bungalow huddled in the shade of moss-hung live oaks, I was introduced to sacred spiders. That Florida—before air-conditioning, before interstates—no longer exists, but what I experienced then is still with me.

Fear of spiders is learned. In this campaign, Americans have learned to fear each other. If Trump is elected on Tuesday, I will fall to my knees, heartbroken and ill. But on Wednesday I’ll rise and resolve to fight the fears that put the America I love in danger.

Posted in Memoir, Politics | 7 Comments