Sunday, June 29, 2014

Driving While White

Yesterday I was pulled over by a cop for driving while white (DWW). He was a Black cop and I was going 25 in a 15 MPH “zone” (over a speed bump). My bad. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Black folks refer to the common instance of being pulled over and harassed by police as a result of racial profiling as Driving While Black (DWB). I doubt I know a single Black person who has not experienced this. It is a serious problem, and I don’t mean to make light of it, but the situation yesterday evening was in some ways comical and so I refer to it jokingly as my DWW incident. (Or perhaps I should call it Driving While White Old Lady.)

Ron and I were driving to the Coyote Valley Dam in the late evening to go for a walk. The last stretch of road to the Dam has a 25 MPH speed limit and about 4 speed bumps to slow people down. After I parked in the lot and got out of my car, I noticed a county sheriff’s vehicle behind me and this tall, handsome, Black cop got out and approached me. Ron had not gotten out of the car yet. The cop asked me if I knew what the speed limit was on the road leading to the Dam and I told him I thought it was 25. He informed me that it’s 15 and that I was going 25. For a brief instant I had the thought that if I told my children I had gotten a speeding ticket for going 25 in a 15 zone they would hurt themselves laughing.

I wonder what the cop thought when he realized that the person he had caught “speeding” was a white-haired lady in Birkenstocks. Ron then got out of the car and joined us. I actually recognized the cop. I had met him before. So I reminded him of where we met and introduced him to my husband. Ron claims that was the point at which the cop decided to give me a warning instead of a ticket (because I had a Black husband) – who knows? I suppose he would be in his legal rights to give me a ticket for going 26 in a 25 zone. It has been done before. Ron once spent a weekend in jail in St. Louis for driving with dirty license plates in a true DWB episode. But the cop didn’t ticket me, he just said to slow down next time and he chuckled and commented, “I couldn’t believe that little car could go that fast.” Seriously? I have a 2007 Honda Fit, not a 1990 VW bug. I didn’t want to push my luck so I held my tongue, but I was thinking of replying, “Oh you should see how fast it goes when I open it up on the highway – I can get it up to 65 MPH!”

As Ron and I started out across the Dam, a gray-haired man leaning on a cane hurried up to us. He walked with us for a space while issuing a tirade about the cop, referring to him frequently as a “horse’s pa-toot.” He told us that this particular cop had a thing about the speed limit and was known in the community for aggressively searching for people going over the speed limit and writing speeding tickets. The man had had it happen to him approaching the Dam and he had called the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to discuss it. According to him, the CHP said the 15 MPH is just for going over the speed bumps and the road in between the speed bumps is a 25 zone. This guy says he always goes 25 up there now in the hope that the horse’s pa-toot will pull him over so he can take the ticket to court and call the cop out on it. He pointed out that this cop is with the county sheriff’s office, not CHP, and he really needs to focus on real crime, not issuing speeding tickets. I agree. (Ron thought it quaint and hilarious that the guy used the term “horse’s pa-toot.”)

I have written grants for Native governments in North County that are trying to figure out ways to deal with crime suspects efficiently. They have no holding facility. No jail. Nowhere to put a suspect until the county sheriff’s office sends an officer to take the suspect to the county jail for booking. On average it takes 3 DAYS for a county officer to turn up when tribal police put out a call for help. So they wind up releasing men who have beaten their wives or sold meth to teenagers because they don’t have the physical ability to hold them. In many instances, their only alternative would be to handcuff them to their desk and sit there staring at them with a gun across their knees like in an old Western. Sometimes they are able to put them into a patrol car and drive them to the county seat to have them booked into jail. But they are not always able to do this, particularly when they have more than one suspect in custody and only one vehicle with a secure “cage” in the back seat in which to transport. Or when they need to remain present on the Reservation because they are short-staffed and someone needs to be available to intervene in life-threatening situations.

There are a number of reasons why the county officers don’t respond right away. One is that budget cuts have reduced the size of the force and they don’t want to deplete their staff by sending someone all the way up to North County (takes an hour or more each way to drive). One is that it’s kind of the Wild Wild West in North County and there have been incidents where family members have shot and killed these outside law enforcement personnel when they turn up (depending on the situation). This is a serious concern. Safety. But it looks to me like one of the reasons why they don’t turn up is because they are busy writing speeding tickets on old ladies driving 25 in a 15 zone. This kind of waste of resources and disorganization makes me crazy. One would think the horse’s pa-toot officer would have bigger fish to fry.

On our way back from the Dam after our walk last night, I went 15 MPH and I swear if I went any slower I would have been stopped. We passed the cop on the road, too. He had pulled over a young man and was issuing him a ticket, writing it up while leaning on the hood of his cruiser. I wondered what speed that unlucky fellow was going. It astonished me that the cop had continued to lurk on that road for an hour (while we walked over the dam and back) waiting for someone to go over the speed limit. Meanwhile my Native friends up in North Country are on their own to deal with real crime, dangerous situations. As Marvin Gaye said, “makes me wanna holler.”

View of the boat dock on Lake Mendocino from the Coyote Valley Dam.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Everyday Trauma

Today I attended the reception to honor this year’s high school grads who received scholarships from the Elena Castaňeda Memorial Scholarship Fund that I created seven years ago when my dear Elena was struck and killed by a truck while biking to work in Oakland. (Although I started the scholarship, it is now managed by the scholarship committee and administered through the Latina Family Foundation. I no longer do any of the work.) The scholarship is given to students who speak Spanish as their first language and who will attend college in the fall. It always takes me by surprise when I have moments in which I feel the loss of Elena as if she died today. Most of the time I am used to the loss. But there are moments.

This time of year is bittersweet for me. While I love the beginning of my gardens, with the first fruits ripening (this week I picked my first plums, zucchini, and basil), it is also the time of year when my mother passed away. Her yahrzeit (annual Jewish memorial date) is next week. I sometimes miss her more now than when she first passed away. I think I am pacing myself to live the rest of my life without her. There have been so many family events from which she has been conspicuously absent in the nine years since we lost her. As we prepare for my son’s wedding this fall, I recall the preparations for my brother’s wedding nearly 20 years ago and how Mom enjoyed buying clothes for my children to wear. She would have loved my son’s fiancée and her family. She would have enjoyed making suggestions for details of the event. I believe spirit does not disappear (as you know if you read my novel), that Mom’s spirit continues in ways beyond my limited comprehension. It is some consolation, but no substitute for the delight of seeing Mom’s joy while watching my son marry the love of his life. However, I am a resilient person. I can accept loss and move forward. I can take great delight in seeing Dad watch my son marry the love of his life; and feel grateful that Dad is still hale and hearty, very much present.

Others are not so lucky. Others have suffered much deeper trauma than I. Others have suffered enormous losses in their war-torn home countries and violent inner city communities in the U.S. The latest trend in federal grants (which I write daily) is to ask applicants to describe how the services they will provide are trauma-informed. How will their program address the experience of underlying trauma that causes children to misbehave in school, teenagers to shoot each other, families to wind up living on the streets and in homeless shelters, and people to have a mental breakdown and become non-functional? I see some of these people out on the street, looking lost, rummaging through trash cans, talking to themselves, uncombed, bad skin, so unhealthy, so distressed. My mother, who was a psychiatric social worker, would have known how to help them begin to recover. I know nothing to do or say that will help.

Mom would have loved all the latest research about what works to help people recover from trauma. Therapists now know that we manifest trauma in our bodies and that somatic therapies have powerful healing ability. I am learning in my nutrition studies about how trauma contributes to an individual’s total “toxic load.” I am learning about medication-free ways to help the body handle the ongoing stress of processing trauma through nutrition, of how to help the body begin to heal itself and detox from the ill effects of trauma, to remove the toxicity of trauma from the blood and the brain and the nervous system.

All that said, here is the thing that I am really pondering today:  while some of us have suffered serious deep trauma, all of us are suffering from the overarching trauma of life. We never stop mourning for those we have lost, and all of us have lost someone(s). That’s my point; that trauma is part of life. Setting aside the trauma of those who have suffered extraordinary losses, and without belittling that in any way, I want to recognize that all of us are traumatized. All of us are survivors. Some of us more resilient in continuing with our lives than others. Because trauma never really goes away. It changes, maybe. We find ways to let go. We find ways to cope. We find ways to restore balance and health. Yet we continue to grieve on some level. Trauma is in the background of our everyday lives. The trauma of being alive contributes to the poignancy of cherishing the fleeting moment.

Trauma does not belong entirely to those in war zones and regions that have experienced natural disasters. It belongs to all of us. At every given moment we are carrying with us the trauma of past losses and experiences as well as the trauma of anticipation of future losses, the fear of what awaits in the due course of our lives. It is what philosophers and theologians refer to as “the human condition.” So I don’t think it is incumbent upon us to “recover,” but more to find ways to maintain balance and health in our lives. I will never stop grieving for Mom or stop missing her, but I will honor her memory and include her in my thoughts as I continue for all the years ahead without her. I will take her to my son’s wedding in my heart. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

All You Can Do Is Laugh

Lately it seems that more and more of my friends have aging relatives and parents who are suffering from dementia. Without making light of something so deeply troubling and difficult, I want to share a few stories from the lighter side, from those who are able to laugh at the insanity wreaked by this disease. Because that’s probably the best way to cope with something as bizarre as watching a competent, capable elder literally lose their mind. When I was many years younger, I heard a joke about the up side of Alzheimer’s, which is that you can hide your own Easter eggs. I want to share two true stories that I love about coping with a parent who has dementia.

My friend Peter’s mom had dementia for many years before she passed away. With in-home care helpers, Peter’s father was able to care for Peter’s mom at home. One evening, when Peter was visiting his folks, he and his mom watched a TV show together in the den. Afterward, Peter’s dad said, “I’m going to get Mom ready for bed.” He led Peter’s mom out of the room. A few minutes later, Peter’s mom ran into the den wearing only her slip, and looking wild-eyed. “Who is that man in my bedroom?” she asked Peter. “It’s OK, Mom,” Peter reassured her, “that’s my father – he’s your husband.” His mother replied mischievously, “He’s very handsome, isn’t he?”

I have always found that story deliciously sweet. Peter’s parents were in their 60s at that time and his father had gone bald and was well on his way to becoming an old man. Even so, even without recognizing this man as her husband, looking at this aging man completely objectively, Peter’s mother still found him attractive. Peter’s mother died peacefully at home some years later.

The other story I heard just recently. My friend Hali’s mother has dementia and last year Hali and her sister Jennifer moved their mother into Jennifer’s house. Jennifer hired a married couple as caretakers for her mom and moved them (and their little girl) into her house as well (Jennifer is single with no children of her own, an attorney, with a large house and solid finances). Between the three of them, they are able to provide the mom with good care 24/7. When I saw Jennifer a few weeks ago, she talked about how crazy it is having a parent whose mind is gone. Her mother rarely recognizes her, often mistaking Jennifer for other women in the family long gone (such as the mom’s own mother, Jennifer’s grandmother). When her mom first moved in with her, Jennifer wasn’t as adept at coping with the memory-loss thing. One time when Jennifer walked in the door from work, her mom asked her who she was. Jennifer said, “I’m your daughter, can’t you recognize me?” (Jennifer doesn’t do this anymore.) Her mom didn’t believe her.

“If you’re my daughter,” Jennifer’s mother demanded smugly (as if she could stump this stranger with this question), “then who’s your father?”

Jennifer says she just couldn’t resist replying, “He’s Wilt Chamberlain; and he still speaks very highly of you, Mom.”

Jennifer’s mom laughed her head off. Even though she didn’t recognize Jennifer, she was having a rollicking good time with whoever this woman was. (Apart from the fact that Wilt boasted in his autobiography that he slept with over 20,000 women, Jennifer’s mom greatly admired his skill on the basketball court and even met him in person once.)

Bravo, Jennifer. I guess all you can do after you mourn the loss is laugh at the absurdity.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Bee Sweet

When we lived at the Ranch, we grew strawberries along the front skirt of our deck. Going out in the early morning and foraging for a few strawberries to put on pancakes was a little slice of heaven. We thought life among the strawberries was good, but then our neighbors across the road started keeping honeybees. The quality of our strawberries increased exponentially during the first year that the neighbors kept their bees. You had to see it to bee-lieve it.

You would have to be living under a rock to be oblivious to the critical importance of bees to survival on the planet, survival of humans as well as many other species. Without our primary pollinators to keep plant life procreating, our food supply would swiftly vanish. Almond growers, for instance, rely entirely on honey bees to pollinate their orchards. California, which produces 82% of the world’s almonds, imports honey bees from other states for the bloom to sustain the $2.3 billion-a-year crop.

These days, there is much concern over the health of bees, on whom our lives depend. In 2005, beekeepers began to see hives collapsing and bee populations disappearing overnight. The twitter version of why this has happened is that toxic chemicals in our environment are killing off the bees. Beekeepers believe that the main culprit is a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids. These chemicals were approved for market in 2000. They are applied to corn, America’s #1 cash crop. It is estimated that 90% of all corn seeds in the U.S. are coated with German agro-chemical manufacturer Bayer’s neonicotinoid pesticide. With the rise of neonicotinoid use, there has been a steep drop off in honey production in the Corn Belt of the U.S., where bee populations are disappearing rapidly. Predictably, Bayer and other chemical manufacturers deny any correlation between neonicotinoids and the widespread collapse of bee hives. They blame it on bee diseases. Some of it is probably caused by bees getting sick, but one of the reasons why their immune systems are compromised is their exposure to neonicotinoids.

Bees in the Midwest are dying off at a faster rate than those in California because the farmers of the Midwest are blasting their crops with far more insecticides. Not only are the crops in the Midwest blasted with more pesticides, but farmers have abandoned traditional crop rotation practices, instead planting singular crops, like corn or soybeans. Jeff Anderson, a commercial beekeeper with bees in California and Minnesota, says, “The environment has become toxic and sick bees don’t make honey. Most of it is pesticide-related, but when you also just have a field of soybeans and dirt, or corn and dirt, or wheat and dirt, unless that particular crop is actively in bloom, you have a forage desert for pollinators.”

We all know that bees carry pollen from flower to flower. In this way they help all manner of plants reproduce, including trees. It takes about two bee hives, or 60,000 bees, to pollinate one acre of orchard. It is estimated that bees and butterflies are responsible for one out of every three bites of food Americans eat. (Earthjustice, 2014.) Honey bees in particular are responsible for pollinating many of our “super-foods,” such as berries, nuts, avocados, and other colorful fruits and vegetables that are the most nutrient-rich and healthiest parts of our diet.

It’s not just the use of insecticides by commercial agriculture business that is killing the bees, it’s also insecticides on our backyard plants. Here it comes my friends, the reason I decided to write today about bees and the insecticides that are killing them. Pesticide-doused plants that people unknowingly plant in their gardens are killing the bees. Many of the plants that backyard gardeners buy at stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowes, hardware stores, or garden supply stores have been treated with neonicotinoids. Us amateur gardeners think we’re helping the bees by planting flowers when actually we’re planting poisons and killing the bees. Even though bees have no interest in grass, the lawn can kill them as well. Lawn fertilizers frequently contain weed-killing toxins (often it says this on the package but not always) that remain in the soil for years and spread to plants that bees like, such as clover.

I feel pretty secure that the bees in my yard are thriving. I watch them come and go all day in the bottle brush tree outside my window. They love the lavender and sage that I have planted in my front yard. Most of the plants that I have added to my yard since I moved to this house are bee-friendly. But the previous owners regularly saturated the ground with Roundup and fed the lawn fertilizers with weed-killers in them. I can only hope that my organic gardening has managed to reverse some of the toxicity and damage the previous owners caused on this little half-acre.

Oh yes, one other thing, if you want to help protect the bees then buy honey from your local small-time beekeeper. Honey is one of the top three best sweeteners you can use for your health (maple syrup and molasses are the other two – organic of course).

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Gwich'in Legend

Here in the new-shoot-green days leading into summer, I read a legend told by the Alaskan Native Athabaskan people, who have made their lives in the frozen landscape of the far North for thousands of years. I want to share the story with you. This story belongs to Velma Wallis, a Gwich’in, who wrote it down in a little book called Two Old Women. The Gwich’in are one of the Athabaskan tribes. Velma’s tribe’s legend goes something like this.

During the deepest days of winter, in a time of famine, a tribal chief decreed that two old women were to be left behind when the tribe moved on in search of better hunting grounds. The people of the tribe were starving and weak, the hunters had not caught anything much to eat for many days, and the tribe’s resources were exhausted. The chief thought that the two old women were an unbearable burden on the tribe. The two old women moved slowly when the tribe traveled, they could not carry anything and so others had to carry their belongings, they were two more mouths to feed at a time when it was important to maintain the strength of the hunters with what little food they had. Other tribal leaders and members agreed with the chief’s verdict. No one was pleased with the decision, but it was the sort of decision that was made from time to time in that place by those people under desperate circumstances. The two old women could remember times from their youth when elderly tribal members were left behind.

But the elderly people who the two old women remembered being left behind were near death, and these two old women were not. They still had some spirit in them. So they rallied. Neither one of them had hunted since they were young, but they set a snare and by great luck caught a rabbit. They made a shelter, stoked a fire from coals, ate their rabbit, and laid their plans. They devised a way to pack up their belongings so that they could pull them along behind them like a sled. They kept the coals from their fire hot in an animal skin, which they carried with them. They made tools and hunting weapons. They remembered a place where their tribe had found fish in the river decades before and they decided to walk there.

Although they moved slowly and had great difficulty hauling their meager possessions behind them, they traveled one step at a time and one day at a time to the place they remembered. They stopped in their travels every few days to set snares and they were lucky enough to catch squirrels and rabbits to eat. While with the tribe, they had come to depend on others for all their needs, but out of necessity they were now forced to look after themselves. It was painful for them to force their aging bodies to push the outer limits of their endurance. It would have been easy for them to lay down in the snow and freeze to death. That would have been a comfortable way to die. But they had decided to live.

Eventually they found the place they remembered. They set up their shelter by the river to wait for the spring thaw when it would flow again and bring them fish. In the meantime, they continued to trap and hunt small creatures. They smoked and dried their extra meat. They made clothing from the fur of the rabbits and squirrels. They made hats and shoes and gloves. They pieced together blankets and coats. They made more clothing than they could possibly use. Their hands, though arthritic with age, were never idle. In the spring, the river flowed, and they caught fish, which they smoked and dried and stored. During the summer they foraged for other edibles, such as cranberries. Summer flowed into autumn and soon it was dark winter again, but they were not concerned since they had stored far more food than they could possibly eat.

They made a good life together, a life of remarkable abundance. But they missed the company of their tribe, especially the children.

Then one day in mid-winter, a member of their tribe stumbled upon them at their home. He was stunned to find them alive. They invited him into their shelter and fed him. He told them that the tribe had not fared well after it abandoned them the previous winter. Many tribal members, especially children, had starved to death. They had traveled to other places but never found much to eat. Now, in a second winter of famine, the tribe was in dire straits.

The two old women stepped aside and discussed what to do. They agreed to forgive the tribe for leaving them behind. They sent the man back to the tribe with an invitation for the tribe to come to their home to share the food they had stocked. The chief came to them in shame and apologized. He had suffered terrible remorse over his decision to abandon them. He was overjoyed that they had survived. He confessed that he thought the continued misfortune of the tribe had come because of his bad decision to leave the two old women behind.

And so the two old women rejoined their tribe and saved the lives of their people. The tribe stopped traveling and made a permanent home by the river where they could fish in the summer months and stock up for the winter. The two old women were treated with respect and consulted in all tribal decisions. Never again would the tribe undervalue their elders or forget that there is no substitute for the wisdom that comes with age, for it is earned over the course of time. As it turned out, the weakest among them were the strongest and those whom they thought were their greatest liability were their greatest asset. 

As the Pomo Natives from around these parts where I live say at the end of a story with much truth:  OH!

 Athabaskan homes in winter.

 Athabaskan homes in summer.

Athabaskan family.